Posted by: bkivey | 16 December 2010

Day of Reckoning

During the timber debate of the early ’90’s the two sides were clearly drawn: industry and county officials argued that the proposed North West Forest Plan (NWFP) would cause massive job loss and commensurate reduction in tax revenues; environmental groups argued that then-current logging practices were unsustainable and caused irreversible damage to the ecosystem, particularly the Northern Spotted Owl. Controversy centered on the owl, claimed to be an indicator species and at the time experiencing a population decline of about 7.5% annually. The environmental argument was that if logging were drastically reduced the owl population would recover with an attendant improvement in the health of the coastal forest ecology. The environmentalists won, and the NWFP was signed into law by President Clinton in 1994.

Sixteen years on, the results are in: the environmental argument has been found to be grossly overstated, and the opponents to the plan have been proven correct, although it is at best a Pyrrhic victory. I wrote about this earlier but decided to revisit the subject on the basis of an article in the local paper published on 3 December (sorry there’s no link; the paper has put the article in its’ paid archives section.) Federal timber subsidies designed to supplement budgets in counties heavily dependent on logging revenue are scheduled to end in 2012, and several counties face fiscal insolvency as a result.

The original subsidies were scheduled to end in 2006 but Congress extended the appropriation twice, and the current payments are on a four-year schedule of annually declining payments. In some counties Federal subsidies make up the great majority of the general fund (table page 39), with the rest of the money coming from property taxes and various county fees and taxes. Because the federal government owns 60% of the land in Oregon, and that land is not subject to taxation, county revenue streams are severely constricted. Logging on Federal land has declined by 90% (table page 10) since the NWFP was enacted, and there’s no real way to make up the revenue deficit short of significant tax increases. It’s not as if organizations like Cascadia Wildlands, Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, or the Audubon Society, agitators for logging bans all, are conducting eco-tours to the Cascade forests to see their beloved owl and thereby putting money into the economies they were instrumental in destroying.

They should probably hurry, because far from recovering, all the logging ban has done is slow the decline of the Spotted Owl, now losing about 3.5% of it’s population annually, a situation on which environmental groups are notably silent, as they are silent on the fact that the owl is virtually extinct in British Columbia, where the Canadians are logging and selling wood. It seems that the owl is not the keystone species it was made out to be, but the fight was never really about protecting a bird: the neo-pagans just don’t like to see evil corporations cutting down ‘their’ precious trees.

While a vocal minority precipitated this mess on the country and the affected counties, the local residents haven’t acquitted themselves particularly well, and seem to have thrown up their hands and decided that other people should be obligated to take care of them. When county coffers were flush with timber revenues property tax rates were set lower than average and the populace has refused to raise them. Time after time levies for everything from libraries to police services have been defeated. There’s not much incentive to take money out of your own pocket when you can depend on the rest of the country to bail you out. The subsidies also skew priorities, as the voters of Lincoln County showed when they approved a five-year levy to operate the county animal shelter while allowing the elimination of mental health services.

In Columbia County, where 20% of the discretionary funds come from timber subsidies, Commissioner Tony Hyde stated that “It’s pretty sad when you can’t call a cop and get an answer.” I agree, but no sadder than looking out your window and seeing square miles of harvestable timber put off-limits by a vocal minority with no stake in the community and having to answer to a populace that won’t take care of itself.

Now Why Is That?

People in the media are forever using the phrase ‘Bush tax cuts’, in most cases, I believe, as more of a reflex than actually understanding what they’re talking about. I wrote about that a little bit here. Another major news item is the repeal of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy concerning openly gay service in the military. Considering that we’re involved in two wars, this seems an unnecessary distraction from the primary business of the military, which should be defeating the opposing forces. That aside, why doesn’t anyone refer to DADT as the ‘Clinton military policy’?

A Close Call

A couple of days ago an EF2 tornado tore through the small town of Aumsville, not far from the state capitol of Salem. Because Oregon isn’t, say, Oklahoma, we don’t have a lot of experience with tornados, averaging about one per year over the last 20 years. The story with pictures is here, including a NOAA photograph of the storm track. While the amount of damage done was impressive, no one was killed or seriously injured.

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