Lack of federal funding hits timber counties hardest

Skamania County is 80% federal land

Logging in Skamania County. (KOIN)

SKAMANIA COUNTY, Wash. (KOIN) — Oregon and Washington’s timber counties are facing serious financial troubles including cuts to education, public roads and law enforcement since they stopped receiving vital payments from the federal government.

For many years, timber fueled the economy in these rural areas, but now private timber companies dominate the market and the federal government has taken over large areas of forest land.

Logging in Skamania County. (KOIN)

Since then, under the Secure Rural Schools and Self-Determination Act, a bill first introduced by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden in 2000, the federal government sent payments to affected counties.

When Congress didn’t reauthorize the SRS in 2017, federal payments to local governments have decreased dramatically or completely stopped.

Skamania County Chair Bob Hamlin said 80% of the county is federal land and just 2% is fully taxed land, making it hard for the county to make money on its own.

The payments were supposed to make up for the lost property tax revenue.

“SRS is a replacement for the 25% that we would have received on federal timber land,” Hamlin said.

The SRS payments ended last year, forcing the counties to make cuts across the board.

Among the public institutions affected by the loss of SRS funding is the Stevenson-Carson School District, which has not received timber money since 2015. In the past six years, the district has reduced expenses by $6 million, meaning big cuts to staff and activities.

Superintendent Karen Douglass said the school year is about to start with 17 fewer positions — 7 teachers and 10 support staff.

“We know the benefit that they bring to the district and so that was very hard work,” Douglass said. “And it was sad because I was telling people that I worked with for years that your position or a portion of your position has been cut.”

Cutting the budget also means there are fewer after school programs because, as Douglass said, “Anything that happens after 3:10 is not funded by the state. So any club, any sport, any extra curricular activity is currently off our budget.”

Details about the levy 

The district is looking at other options for funding, including asking voters to approve a much-needed levy. The new levy request increases from $800,000 to $2 million for three years, replacing the previous levy. The money would be used to support basic operations at the school through the 2019-2020 school year.

If voters approve the levy on August 1, the district will be able to rehire at least three teachers and five classified staff, buy new curriculum and books, maintain schools, keep extra curricular activities and take students on field trips, among other things. The district would still be making budget cuts in many areas even if the levy is approved.

Skamania County Sheriff Dave Brown is also worried about cuts to public safety funding. In 2011, Skamania County had 23 deputies but now there are just 14.

“We gotta find an offset, we gotta find the money somewhere,” Brown said.

Resources are already limited because many of their calls are to help visitors in Skamania County’s many scenic areas. In fact, 1,672 square miles and 80% of the county is national forest — the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area are all within Skamania County.

“It’s just been very difficult and a strain on our resources,” Brown said. “If we can’t sustain levels of staffing that we have now then we are going to see further cuts to service, probably an elimination of response to certain types of calls.”

The Gifford Pinchot National Forest. (Skamania County Sheriff)

These issues aren’t unique to the Northwest. They are affecting rural communities across the country. The SRS has benefited 41 states and more than 700 counties.

Washington Congresswoman Jamie Herrera Beutler, who represents Skamania County, has been fighting for the SRS since she took office in 2010.

“The Secure Rural Schools program is currently the only lifeline for many formerly timber-dependent communities in Southwest Washington to keep schools, emergency services and roads operating,” Herrera Beutler said in a press release. “For example, Skamania County once had a thriving timber industry to fund their vital services, but now, with more than 90% of the land in public ownership and producing virtually zero harvest, they no longer have local tax revenue to support the needs of their local residents.”

She wants to find a more sustainable, long term solution, but realizes that rural communities like Skamania County depend on federal funds if they can’t rely on the timber industry.

Senators Jeff Merkley and Wyden have been fighting for rural communities too, urging congress to reauthorize the SRS funding. Oregon received more SRS dollars than any other state in 2015.

“Oregon counties depend on SRS funding to help pay for good schools, safe roads and reliable law enforcement,” Wyden said in a March 2017 press release. “I will keep working on a long-term solution to give rural counties in Oregon and across the country certainty to plan their budgets and provide crucial resources to their citizens.”

For a long-term solution, dozens of lawmakers are asking Congress to reopen forest practices, including improving forest health, increasing production and ensuring revenue-sharing to timber counties.

“Years of non management has resulted in problems of over crowed forest, fire issues and everything else,” Hamlim said.

Skamania County residents will have a chance to vote for the school funding levy on August 1 and county leaders agree that changes need to happen soon to improve the situation.

The Columbia River Gorge. (KOIN)
The Columbia River Gorge. (KOIN)