by Craig Pope, Polk County Commissioner
Michael Cairn’s recent criticism of rural county governments in his Statesman Journal op-ed deserves a response. Mr. Cairns lives in Polk County, where I serve as a County Commissioner charged with balancing the budget in the face of declining revenues. As one of 18 O&C timber counties, it’s our responsibility and challenge to fund basic services despite declining support from the federal government.
Mr. Cairns’ opinion exemplifies the “hands-off” approach to forest management and the tactics of environmental litigation and obstruction that helped create the mess we are now trying to fix. Though I can agree that there have been poor management practices in the past by public and private land managers, I continue to maintain that significant progress has been made toward sustainable timber harvests that are in balance with conservation values. Citing spotted owls as a “canary in the coal mine” is short sighted and simply not true considering current landscape management practices in Oregon. Even with the steep decline in federal timber harvests, spotted owl populations have declined due to predation by barred owls which the federal government is now spending millions to eradicate.
I find it remarkable that special interests often overlook the basics of how western Oregon counties built their communities and grew their economies. Polk County for example, was settled and established on farming and timber harvesting. This is true for the majority of the “timber counties” in Oregon or anywhere else in the nation. Our local base of government has been supported by property taxes and timber receipts that are derived from the local natural resources that sustain those payments. When you restrict those resources, you not only restrict the ability to generate revenue, you eventually choke the economy to a point where taxpaying businesses and family-wage jobs are lost.
Extreme environmentalists are always quick to blame community leaders and their supposed inability to develop “alternate funding sources,” while conveniently ignoring the historic connection between local communities and adjacent, federally-controlled lands. Short of raising taxes on homes and business, we struggle to find new sources of revenue to support what the now near-extinct federal timber revenues once provided, while losing the vitality that made those communities attractive to new business ventures in the past. Small cities and counties are forced to re-invent themselves with promises that tourism and service-based industries will help cover the budget shortfalls. This principle does work in a few isolated areas, but it clearly is not the pathway to salvation as demonstrated in southern coastal Oregon counties that struggle in spite of a natural tourism opportunities.
The fact remains that we have not lost sight of the trees in our back yards that must be managed for sustainability. For any successful landscape management practice, there must be balance that protects our natural resources while supporting our local economies. That was the intent of the law that was passed in 1937 for the O&C Counties, and remains the law today. That law can and will be honored while meeting the conservation needs of our watersheds and wildlife.