By JEFF BARNARD
GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) -- A U. S. Senate committee on Tuesday endorsed legislation to extend federal subsidies for timber counties one more year, and to protect more wilderness and wild rivers in Oregon.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the two bills are part of his effort to solve the funding crisis for Oregon timber counties, which are struggling to finance law enforcement, and other services, in the wake of expired subsidies and voter reluctance to increase taxes. Still to come is some way to increase timber harvests on what are known as the O&C lands in Western Oregon as a permanent funding solution for the counties.
"As we go forward on the O&C legislation, the lands in western Oregon that were protected in the Oregon Treasures bill are going to be part of the balance that is going to be struck in the division of lands between conservation and harvest lands," Wyden said in a statement.
One bill would extend federal subsidies to timber counties nationwide, known as the Secure Rural Schools Act, though at a 5 percent lower rate than before. Oregon's share would be about $100 million.
Secure Rural Schools was first enacted in 2000, and has now expired, with final payments going out early this year. The idea was to make up for the timber revenues that counties lost when national forests cut back logging by 90 percent to protect fish, wildlife and clean water.
The other would create two new wilderness areas in central and southwestern Oregon, and extend wild river protection to parts of the Rogue, Chetco and Molalla rivers. One wilderness area would be in the central Oregon area known as Cathedral Rock. The other would be along the lower Rogue River in southwestern Oregon.
The bills were voted out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chaired by Wyden on a voice vote with no opposition.
If the bills pass the full Senate, their fate is still uncertain in the House, where members of the Oregon delegation have been working on a legislative proposal to split the O&C lands in two, with one managed for conservation, and the other for timber that would provide revenues for timber counties.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the O&C lands, is working on a new management plan for the area, which would be ready in 2015.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., called the Senate committee action a positive step, adding that some kind of extension of the timber subsidies has always been envisioned as part of the solution for the counties. It would be a couple years before any legislation that increases timber harvest would produce logs.
Wyden is still working on expansion of federal subsidies beyond timber counties to all resource-dependent counties with federal lands.