Timber payments could bring $3.5 million to county

    Jackson County could get as much as $3.5 million in a one-year extension of federal timber payments passed by both houses of Congress this week.

    The extension was included in a bill that averts a shutdown of the federal helium reserve. If signed by President Obama as expected, it will mean about $100 million for 33 Oregon counties.

    Rocky McVay, of the Association of O&C Counties, said the exact amount Jackson County would receive is not known, but he expects it to be close to the $3.5 million the county received in 2012-13. Those funds likely would be paid in January or February 2014.

    "The caveat to that is we don't know what they're going to do with the budget," McVay said.

    Jackson County Board of Commissioners Chairman Don Skundrick said most of the money would go into the county's rainy-day fund since it's a one-time infusion.

    Josephine County would see about $4.4 million to be used for law enforcement in the next fiscal year beginning July 1, 2014, Rosemary Padgett, chief financial officer for the county, told the Grants Pass Daily Courier.

    "The shoe has yet to drop. We keep limping along here," said Josephine County Commissioner Simon Hare after getting the news. "We're still going to have more significant reductions. We're almost at a breaking point at the jail."

    U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said the measure is a short-term solution, but that broader, long-term solutions are needed to provide relief in rural communities.

    "That help is a lifeline, not a lifeboat," Walden said of the extension from the House floor. "The status quo of asking Uncle Sam for a check year after year is simply not sustainable. However, managing our federal forests, generating jobs and revenue; that's sustainable."

    Walden added he hopes the Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, passed last week by the House, would provide that long-term solution, utilizing forest management that would provide tax revenue for local schools and law enforcement.

    "We need to help our forested communities get back to self-sufficiency and self-reliance, get people back to work in the woods," Walden said. "The clock's ticking. It's time to get this done."

    The Health Forests act would place the roughly 2.7 million acres of so-called O&C land into two trusts, with roughly half of it managed for conservation while the remainder would focus on sustainable timber production to help fund county coffers.

    Conservation groups have decried the proposal as an attempt to privatize federal forestland and warn of a return to clear-cuts.

    The extension of timber payments to cash-strapped counties was included in the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act, or HR 527.

    The bill was passed by the House Wednesday and the Senate on Thursday.

    The House's Committee on Natural Resources said in a news release that HR 527 is intended to preserve the U.S. helium supply by preventing the closure of the Federal Helium Reserve and reducing the federal deficit by $90 million over 10 years.

    The Federal Helium Program, which provides about 42 percent of the nation's helium from a storage site in Texas, was set to shut down Oct. 7 unless lawmakers intervened. Closing the reserve could cause a worldwide helium shortage.

    The timber payments amendment was included by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who is chairman of the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources committee, which has jurisdiction over the National Helium Reserve.

    Reach Mail Tribune reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at rpfeil@mailtribune.com. The Associated Press and Grants Pass Daily Courier contributed to this report.

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