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OR Congressional Delegation Goes to Bat for County Payments

October 10, 2011

SALEM, Ore. - The Oregon congressional delegation is cosponsoring new legislation this week to reauthorize what are commonly called "county payments." It is federal money given to rural counties that are made up mostly of national forestland that doesn't generate any local tax revenue. The program ended in September, and Congress is debating whether and how to reauthorize it.

All six Oregon congressmen are backing a plan that continues the county payments for another five years, reducing the amounts by five percent a year.

Conservation groups are also encouraged by that approach. Peter Dykstra, Pacific Northwest regional director of The Wilderness Society, says the bad economy has hit rural towns hard enough.

"We think that ultimately, counties will be able to successfully transition to new economies based on tourism, recreation and other opportunities. This program is set up to allow that transition to happen in a way that we can sustain these communities."

County payments have been part of the Secure Rural Schools Act, helping counties pay for schools, roads and services. The program is also known as Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT).

An alternate plan in the U.S. House would keep the program but restructure it to allow more logging and mining activity on public land. Dykstra says that bill hasn't received the same broad support as the new Senate bill.

In Oregon, county payments are an even bigger issue because of a unique resource called "O and C lands," which stands for "Oregon and California." It's former railroad company land that the federal government now manages, giving 75 percent of the revenue generated on that land to the two states.

Richard Whitman, Natural Resources Advisor to Gov. John Kitzhaber, says it isn't just county payments now being revisited, but management of the "O and C lands" as well.

"What is a sustainable level of timber receipts and other revenue that could be earned from those lands, and what's the interplay between local communities and those lands? We need more time, frankly, to work on those issues and to build consensus around them."

Whitman says the plan backed by the Oregon congressional delegation offers that additional time.

Some Republicans in the U.S. House believe revenue can be boosted for counties by easing environmental restrictions on public land. Whitman says the governor has concerns about that approach.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR