Walden helps file bill to aid rural schools, communities

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

January 6, 2007

U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., have filed a bill to extend the “county payments” law for seven more years.

Hood River County Administrator Dave Meriwether praised the two legislators for championing the program. He said the county stands to lose $1.7 million for road maintenance if the federal government does not reauthorize the funds.

Hood River County has also received $580,000 that goes into the state coffers and is divvied up among schools.

“We certainly do appreciate all the efforts that Congressmen Walden and DeFazio are making to continue this very necessary program,” said Meriwether.

Walden said the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Reauthorization Act of 2007 should rightfully be approved.

“Nearly 100 years ago, the federal government made a commitment to rural counties, and we intend to see that it maintains it,” said Walden. “Since first introducing this legislation together two years ago, we’ve successfully educated both sides of the aisle about the critical nature of this program to rural communities in Oregon and throughout the country.

“Awareness of this importance is now very high, and it’s time for members of Congress to unite behind a revenue stream to fully fund the program. There is no more important issue to the health of rural counties.”

He said federal laws of 1908 and 1937 specified that the government share harvest receipts from national forests with counties. The purpose was to offset the loss of taxes with a land-base that included federal property. Rural counties were allotted 25 percent of the U.S. Forest Service receipts and 50 percent of Bureau of Land Management receipts. These payments were dedicated primarily to schools and roads.

However, by the mid to late 1990s, environmental regulations had drastically reduced harvest levels. And payments dropped by more than 70 percent nationwide.

In 2000, Congress enacted legislation to correct this imbalance for six years.

Officials wanted to give timber-dependent communities time to make an economic adjustment. The formula for payments was established on harvest levels during three high years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Meriwether said 61 percent of the Hood River County’s land-base is comprised of national forest. Therefore, he said the transition to another type of industry is challenging and will take a long time.

Of Oregon’s 36 counties, 32 received payments through the program totaling more than $273 million last year.

“Organizations from the farthest ends of the spectrum have come together to support this program in a model partnership among local, state and federal interests,” said DeFazio. “Today, the biggest obstacles we face are ever-tightening budgets and growing federal deficits.

“So, we must now redouble our efforts in hand with this unique coalition to reauthorize this legislation. It is the lifeblood of rural counties across America, who serve everyday as stewards of our federal lands.”

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