Economically hard-hit Oregon counties are on the ropes and are about to go down for the count.
That was the gist of a news conference Thursday afternoon in Medford in which 11 officials from five Oregon counties gave a sobering assessment of the impact the loss of dollars from federal timberlands has had on their counties.
"I'm here today to give you a preview of coming attractions to your area if we can't fix this problem," said Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson, who now has one patrol deputy.
O&C trust bill
The O&C Trust, Conservation and Jobs Act would place the roughly 2.7 million acres of O&C land into two trusts, with roughly half of it managed for conservation while the remainder would focus on sustainable timber production to help fund county coffers.
There are no projections on how much timber would be produced from the 1.47-million-acre O&C Trust, which would consist of previously managed timberlands. The proposal calls for those lands to be sustainably managed to meet the federal government's obligation to the 18 O&C counties.
The plan would transfer management of older forest stands to the U.S. Forest Service for preservation and disperse timber production on the lands to meet the needs of mills throughout Western Oregon.
It also would add 58,100 acres to the Rogue Wilderness Area in the Lower Rogue River drainage. The proposal designates 93 miles of 35 tributaries of the Rogue as either "wild," "scenic" or "recreational" under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
In addition, it would withdraw 19 tributaries on the Rogue from mining as well as 11 miles on the Chetco River.
The proposal is supported by both the Oregon House and Senate, 15 boards of commissioners, the Oregon State Sheriffs Association and industry groups. However, some environmental groups and mining interests have expressed skepticism about the bill.
"We are buried," he said. "Burglary has increased 1,594 percent over the last year. Auto theft has increased 1,714 percent. Theft increased 1,435 percent. Domestic assault, 1,100 percent increase."
County officials also weighed in with their support for a bill now before the U.S. House which they believe would restore timber monies to the counties.
"Counties are about to hit the wall financially, with public services in a steep decline, especially those connected with public safety," said Doug Robertson, a Douglas County commissioner and head of the Association of O&C Counties.
"The solution is pending in Congress as we speak in the form of the bipartisan O&C Trust, Conservation and Jobs plan offered by Reps. DeFazio, Walden and Schrader," he stressed.
The proposed O&C Trust act — authored by U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield; Greg Walden, R-Hood River; and Kurt Schrader, D-Canby — is expected to come before the full House next month. It is part of the Restoring Healthy Forests For Healthy Communities bill (HR 1526) which county officials say would fund critical public services for one more year by providing short-term bridge financing for the counties. The O&C measure will cut through government red tape that has created gridlock on federal forestlands, according to the officials.
Senior U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is expected to release his own O&C proposal in a few weeks, a Wyden spokesman told the Mail Tribune on Thursday. Wyden chairs the powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
County officials say economic relief is desperately needed for the 18 Western Oregon counties that have been dependent for decades on timber-related payments from former Oregon & California Railroad Co. lands now under U.S. Bureau of Land Management jurisdiction. With timber harvests down, the counties have had to cut deeply into all areas, from public safety to libraries, they say.
"The path to maintaining the status quo will inevitably lead to insolvency and a rapid decreased livability in many areas of our state," Robertson said. "There is another path, one that provides an innovative and balanced alternative to managing our national forest and BLM land.
"This approach includes significant gains in the area of conservation while creating thousands of new jobs, adequate resources for county government and the sustainable flow of raw materials for the wood-products industry," he added of the O&C trust act.
Jackson County Commissioner John Rachor agreed. Seven years ago the county received about $23 million in federal timber revenue, a figure that has dropped to zero this year, he said. As a result, there have been severe cuts in county law enforcement, libraries, the veterans department and other services.
"The root of this is federal timber management," he said. "There are so many restrictions on our ability to harvest our natural resources. It is tough to get anything done."
The forest bill would open up the federal woods while taking conservation measures to protect valuable resources, he said.
Josephine County Commissioner Simon Hare said the bill establishes a conservation fund and provides for greater riparian setbacks for logging along streams.
"It establishes over 90,000 acres in wilderness and special places designation," he said. "And it permanently protects old-growth forests."
Yet it would also create jobs and provide predictability to the counties, he said.
"I think we are poised really well toward a solution," he said. "At the end of the day, most of the county commissioners in the O&C counties no longer want what is considered a welfare check. What they want is the jobs and the economy that is tied to this important legislation.
"I think that people in Oregon are starting to realize that our do-nothing management style has really brought us nowhere," he added.
For the county sheriffs and district attorneys in attendance, the issue clearly was public safety.
Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters, a former Oregon State Police trooper, expressed empathy for what his fellow sheriffs in Josephine and Curry counties now face because of cuts in the state police. He said he faced dangerous situations while he was a trooper with no backup.
"I know what we are facing and it is not good," he said.
"What we're talking about today is a system that is broke, and badly broken."
Curry County Sheriff John Bishop said he only has four patrol deputies, all of whom are utterly inundated.
"They are 20 to 30 reports down at any single time," he said, adding they have no time to spend writing reports.
That lag has an impact on the legal system, he said.
Moreover, many calls they used to routinely respond to are now answered with a form sent in the mail, he said.
"I have a problem with that," he said. "It erodes the public trust and cooperation all of us sheriffs have enjoyed over the years."
"It is the public — our friends and neighbors — who suffer," said Douglas County District Attorney Rick Wesenberg. "They pay their taxes. They vote on Election Day. They lead productive lives, believing when they need help, help will be there for them.
"But it is these innocent citizens for whom help is often delayed, if it arrives at all," he added.
In Jackson County, the cuts are being felt, acknowledged Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert.
"Victims have to wait longer in order to get services from our office, cases are being filed later or not being filed at all," she said. "We have started to not prosecute some cases. We cannot do everything we've done in the past because of fewer resources."
When a county makes cuts in public safety, the problem doesn't stay in the county, said Josephine County District Attorney Steven Campbell.
"With regards to our misdemeanor case load, we have had to cut almost all our misdemeanors," he offered as an example. "Driving under the influence is a misdemeanor. Those are people who cross county lines under the influence."
On average, there are now only two deputies patrolling Lane County because of budget cuts, said Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner, noting the county is the size of the state of Connecticut.
"We are not living in Mayberry anymore — we have serious crime," he said. "But there is a point in which you can't do more with less. And we are there."
As a case in point, he said an emergency call came in of a burglar armed with a gun who had broken into a house one night east of Cottage Grove.
"It was a very high priority call and the nearest deputy on duty was 80 miles away," he said. "That is the level of danger none of us should be willing to tolerate."
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.