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Counties brace for subsidy's end

By Jeff Barnard

The Associated Press

TALENT, Ore. — The end of a little-known federal subsidy that funneled millions of dollars to rural counties to compensate them for restrictions on logging is forcing communities in the West to close libraries, reduce police patrols and put off road repairs.

"We're building libraries in Iraq and we are not funding libraries in Jackson County," Dana Rayburn grumbled as she looked for a book for her first-grader in the brand-new Talent branch library, one of 15 in Oregon's Jackson County now slated to close.

For generations, revenue from the cutting of timber in national forests allowed many rural counties in the West to build roads and schools and cover other expenses. The money enabled some counties to keep their property taxes extraordinarily low.

In the 1990s, though, restrictions aimed at protecting spotted owls, salmon and other wildlife led to severe cutbacks in logging, and Congress authorized subsidies to timber communities to cushion the blow.

Now, those subsidies are coming to an end. Late last year, Congress refused to renew the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, which has paid out $2.9 billion over the past six years to 700 counties in 39 states.

The last checks are going out this month.

On Thursday, Oregon congressmen said they had a deal to continue funding for a year on an emergency basis, though at a lower level and to fewer states. But the chances of final passage are iffy, because the measure is tied to a bill that sets a timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, and President Bush has threatened to veto it.

If the subsidy comes to an end, West Coast logging states will take the biggest hit.

Oregon received more than half of the Secure Schools money over the years, getting $280 million last year alone. California was second with $66 million, followed by Washington with $42 million.

To make up for the lost revenue, Lane County, home to the University of Oregon, has instituted an income tax.

But rural Oregon has a reputation for hating taxes and is not afraid to vote down increases even for such things as schools and libraries.

In Josephine County, where the shoulder patches worn by sheriff's deputies depict a logging truck and where a proposed tax increase would raise the median property tax bill from $757 to $1,069, sheep farmer Lynne Vanderlinden said law enforcement is so sparse in the countryside that cutting back sheriff's patrols and jail beds would make no difference.

"We wouldn't need these taxes if we went back to sustainable logging," she said.

Because of logging cutbacks, "the social and economic welfare of people I know in the past 20 some years has gone straight downhill. I've seen people have to go on welfare. The drinking starts. The divorces."

Coos County has sent layoff notices to about 60 people, including 38 in the sheriff's department. Capt. Dave McDaniel said he does not know whether his own job is safe as he works out which crimes 911 dispatchers will be able to send a patrol car to.

"There is this, ‘Am I next?' feeling," McDaniel said.

"On the flipside of that, those of us who will be left, how are we going to function? How are we going to make this work?"

High in the Sierra Nevada ski country of California, officials in Alpine County said they will probably close two of their six schools to make up for the loss of $425,000. Ninety-two percent of Alpine County is made up of national forest.

In Arizona's Greenlee County, School Superintendent Tom Powers said he will have to close a school serving 18 special-education students, some of them brain-damaged from drugs and abuse. They will have to return to their home districts.

"They are probably going to roll them into a back empty classroom somewhere and turn the TV on and show them videos," he said.

Oregon's Harney County has cut its road crews to the minimum needed during the winter to keep the roads plowed. Otherwise, the county would have to triple its property tax, said County Judge Steve Grasty, who is equivalent to a county commissioner.

"The old covered wagons had ‘Oregon or Bust' painted on them," he said. "We're busted."

The federal government has been sharing timber revenue with rural counties for nearly a century, under an arrangement worked out by President Theodore Roosevelt to gain their support for the creation of national forests.

National forest timber production hit highs of more than 12 billion board feet a year in the late 1960s and late 1980s, but plummeted 80 percent to 2.3 billion last year, in part because large swaths of the woods have been declared off-limits for environmental reasons. Last year's harvest brought in just $221 million.

To make up for the downturn, Congress started giving Northwest timber communities subsidies in the 1990s to tide them over while they came up with new sources of revenue. After that expired, Congress passed the Secure Schools Act, which spread the safety net to all counties with national forests.

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