Energy & Environment

Nation’s taxpayers still paying for owl flap, 22 years later

Nation's taxpayers still paying for owl flap, 22 years later

Christopher Weaver was one of thousands of prisoners released from Oregon jails last year until his “get-out-of-jail-free” card quickly turned into a round-trip ticket and he was arrested a few hours later for robbing a bank.

Local officials blamed the purge of 5,500 jailbirds including Weaver on dwindling federal funds marked for prison operations, but that revenue source was intended to be only a temporary economic fix. Those funds backfilled local tax revenue losses following the Oregon timber industry’s sharp decline in production after the 1990 spotted owl controversy.

“The release of these inmates from the Lane County Jail is directly related to the significant reduction in federal funding and is indicative of the lack of active management of the federal forests that make up half our land base,” Sid Leiken, Lane County commissioner said in a statement Dec. 1 after the Weaver incident.

“Congress has all but completely walked away from this promise,” Leiken said.

It has been two decades since Congress pledged to temporarily help communities get back on their feet after the Northern Spotted Owl was added to the endangered species list—a status that severely restricted the region’s essential source of revenue from logging and eliminated more than 100,000 jobs.

Despite the funding offer as a temporary solution to the rocky economic transition, billions of dollars in federal aid were distributed while many communities in the Pacific Northwest continued to struggle to pay for local services, all the while demanding federal dollars rather than raising local taxes.

But Congressional Republicans are looking at an alternative fix to allow locals to raise their own funding again without burdening federal taxpayers, by giving them permission to cut down the trees and again reap the benefits of timber revenue.

Payment program started in 1991

The Forest Service has shared a quarter of all timber revenues with surrounding rural communities since 1908 to compensate for the large swaths of federal lands that are not subject to local taxation. The money has been used primarily for schools, as well as other needs like law enforcement salaries and funding for local jails to keep criminals behind bars.

The “Owl Guaranteed Payments” from Uncle Sam started in 1991 and were supposed to end in 2000, but that was replaced by the so-called Secure Rural Schools aid that was set to expire in 2006, but is still getting annual renewals by Congress.

Republicans are planning to make 2013 the last year for federal funding by enacting legislation that would streamline environmental laws that have blocked many timber harvests since the owl was added to the endangered species list.

Capitol Hill sources say the language most likely to move forward was originally authored last year by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. The bill was passed out of committee, but not by the full House.

It would create a county schools and revenue trust to provide a dependable source of revenue by splitting revenues from certain Forest Service projects—65 percent staying local and 35 percent returning to the federal Treasury. Those projects include timber sales, grazing permits or other revenue from permits involving recreation and minerals.

“The status quo of receiving declining and uncertain federal payments is simply not acceptable,” Hastings told his committee last year. “This will provide a stable revenue stream for counties and schools, create new jobs, strengthen rural economies, promote healthier forests, reduce the risk of wildfires, and decrease our reliance on foreign countries for timber and paper goods.”

With Congress looking to make cuts across the board in federal funding this year, Capitol Hill Republicans say the solution to preventing future jailbird releases is allowing rural communities to once again rely on its abundant timber.

The bill’s prospects in the Republican-controlled House are favorable, but it will face opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate and probably from President Obama, who is sensitive to criticism of the bill from environmental groups.

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