Industry leaders seek equal burden with state on fighting fires

By MITCH LIES

Capital Press

SALEM -- The Ways and Means Committee co-chairs proposed March 29 to maintain the current 50-50 cost share for the Oregon Department of Forestry's base fire protection program.

Gov. John Kitzhaber in his budget had proposed to increase landowners' share of the program's costs to 55 percent.

The divergent proposals are coming to a head in the ODF budget, scheduled before the Ways and Means Natural Resources Subcommittee April 25-28.

Ray Wilkeson of the Oregon Forest Industries Council said he was pleased the Ways and Means co-chairs called for the even split.

"We think the state needs to be a full partner, and the co-chairs apparently agree with us," Wilkeson said.

Forest owners pay half the state's costs for maintaining crews and equipment to fight forest wildfires through an acreage assessment tax.

Total cost of the program this biennium is approximately $44 million, agency spokesman Dan Postrel said.

Also up for discussion in the next few weeks is how much forest owners pay toward the department's Forest Practices Act. Forest owners' share of that program's costs increased from 40 percent to 52 percent last session.

The industry is hoping this session to restore the 40-60 balance.

The industry pays its share through a harvest tax, set at $1.14 per 1,000 board feet this biennium.

The state will pay $10.6 million into the program this biennium. That would increase to $12.6 million in the governor's budget.

The industry this session also is hoping to revamp the funding formula used by ODF to fight large-scale wildfires.

Under the current formula, forest landowners pay the first $10 million of a $25 million deductible insurance policy. The state pays the next $15 million.

The formula has resulted in landowners paying virtually the entire program costs in recent years, Wilkeson said.

Going back 18 years, private landowners have paid $153 million into the program, while the state has paid $31 million, forestry lobbyist Kristina McNitt said.

House Bill 2451 changes the funding formula so the state and landowners split the program's deductible beginning with the first dollar.

The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on April 4 moved the bill to Ways and Means Committee with a do-pass recommendation.

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