Thirty Plus Years Later, Local Government Suffering From Environmental Decisions

Right From the Start

Last Saturday’s Oregonian carried a story about another “blue ribbon panel” to be appointed by Gov. John Kitzhaber:

Gov. John Kitzhaber said he’ll convene a panel of timber industry executives, conservation groups and hard-hit county representatives to figure out how to allow more logging on 2.6 million acres of federal land while protecting key environmental features.”

Mr. Kitzhaber has a long history of appointing blue ribbon panels and then ignoring their advice. It is one of those political gimmicks that makes it look like you are all action when, in fact, you are just all talk.

But that’s not the real story here. The real story is about real economic consequences of a federal government that over reaches “in the name of the greater good.”

If ultimately approved by Congress, a deal on the O&C [Oregon and California Railroad timber] lands could be the first step in resolving a problem that has bedeviled rural Oregon for decades. The federal government owns 60 percent of the forestland in Oregon but accounts for only 12 percent of the state’s timber harvest each year – a harvest that generations of Oregonians depended on for jobs and funding for schools and county services. [Bracketed words supplied]

The various pieces of environmental legislation adopted by Congress are best described as “target legislation” that define goals and then turns the details over to an army of bureaucrats. And therein lies the problem. The broad authority granted to the bureaucrats allows virtually unlimited actions in furtherance of the goals without regard to consequences in other areas. And the federal courts validated this myopic view of bureaucratic action.

The result has been decades of increasingly intrusive rules, endless studies and consumptive litigation. In each instance, environmental activists recognize that each step involves a delay – and not just a short delay but rather delays that stretch into years – and that such delays result in victory even when the merits would result in defeat. A visible reminder of the effects of delay is the 2002 Biscuit fire in Southern Oregon.

Let’s make sure that we understand the size of the problem. The Biscuit Fire consumed 400,000 acres in the Siskiyou National Forest – an area dominated by conifers and hardwoods. Forty-two percent of the trees were killed by the fire and another eight percent were so damaged as to put them at immediate risk of destruction by insect infestation. The trees killed and damaged represented five billion board feed of timber. That is an amount that is roughly 10 times the total amount of timber harvested on public lands in Oregon in the same year, 2002.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, it was estimated that half of the timber was salvageable. Of that 2.5 billion board feet of salvageable lumber, less than one per cent was actually be harvested. The remainder will stand like blackened sentinels testifying to the ability of environmental extremists to use the courts to thwart common sense and modern technology. The environmental extremists know that there is a limited time within which you can harvest marketable burned timber and their lawsuits and appeals can run out the clock before the timber can be harvested and the fire-damaged forests replanted. Even in an instance when nature has been ultimately destructive and the intrusion of man will be more beneficial than harmful.

The Biscuit fire is representative a whole series of actions that basically devastated the timber industry in Oregon beginning in the 1980’s. Thousand of good family wage jobs were lost and long time family businesses were forced to close as the ability to harvest timber dried up. Three decades have passed without any significant relief from the effects of these environmental laws and regulations. Twenty-six years of Democrat administrations in Oregon have passed without so much as a peep regarding the economic damage caused by these acts.

But now there is concern. Why at this late date? Because now the economic reality of the collapse of the timber industry is being visited upon government. While the timber industry was devastated from the outset, government was immunized through a series of federal acts that provided “replacement funds” for tax revenues lost from the now quiescent timber industry. As the Oregonian – ever late to the party – noted:

The decline of logging due to policy changes, endangered species protection, lawsuits, recessions and other forces has greatly reduced timber revenues to a number of Oregon counties.

“Congress supplied replacement funding with the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, beginning in 2000. The county timber payments were extended twice, and a last round of emergency checks was delivered this year. In several counties, the payments provided 60 percent or more of total operating budgets.”

Fast forward to the economic collapse in 2008 and four years of record deficits. A federal government, strapped for cash, has ended the federal payments and local governments now feel the same deprivation as the industry upon which they once relied. As the Oregonian noted:

“Some Counties have already reduced sheriff’s patrols, let prisoners out of short-staffed jails and closed departments.”

But then here is Mr. Kitzhaber attempting to redefine the problem for the Oregonian:

“’We can’t ignore what’s going on our there in our rural communities’, the governor said. ‘They want the dignity of being able to bring home a paycheck and take care of their families. That’s the part I’m really concerned about’”

Please governor, give us a break. If you really gave a damn about the dignity of people being able to bring home a paycheck you would have done something about it during your first two terms. But back then the federal dollars were flowing, the fly-fishing was magnificent and all was good in your little world. It is solely and only because government now faces a funding crisis that you are moved to even speak about the issue let alone do anything.

And these are not the only “social engineering” projects that are about to go under because a lack of funding. Wind and solar projects dependent largely on past and future government subsidies are about to crash given the likelihood that federal subsidies, including tax credits, will end. As much as the left loves the electric car, it too is about to end as subsidies are withdrawn. We have learned lately that it costs General Motors $89,000 to produce a Chevy Volt that sells for $47,000. (It was bad enough when we learned that the Chevy Volt was simply a modified Chevy Cruz that sells for $17,000 and will get only 30 miles on an overnight charge.) There is significant chatter in the auto industry that the reason General Motors is pressing for the federal government to sell its remaining 26 percent of the company and that the federal government is resisting is because General Motors wants to dump the Volt along with other government mandates. And finally, the light rail projects loved by Portland’s liberal establishment face future headwinds as transportation funds are scaled back.

And therein lies the point. Uneconomical decisions fail over the long run. Either because the market place moves beyond those decisions or, as in the case of the environmental curtailment of the forest industry the burdens imposed on private industry eventually adversely effect the finances of government.

But before the liberals who dominate Oregon politics go apoplectic over the prospect that an additional tree will be cut in Oregon, or that – God forbid – someone should make a profit from cutting a tree, please remember that Mr. Kitzhaber has a long record of appointing blue ribbon panels and then ignoring their advice. One should expect that the solution to a lack of government funding in Oregon’s timber counties and schools will not be found in producing something but rather in another form of government subsidy. For those of you forced to endure an education in Portland public schools, that means that the state legislature will be asked to subsidize these counties. And that means an additional burden spread across all of the taxpayers in Oregon – or at least that declining percentage of Oregonians who actually pay taxes.