US Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley on Thursday urged federal officials to make much-needed federal timber sales payments as quickly as possible to Oregon counties in need of funding for schools, roads and law enforcement.
In letters to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the senators noted that congressional failure to reauthorize Secure Rural Schools (SRS) funding puts a premium on ensuring the federal timber payments are sent in a timely fashion to Oregon counties.
Counties no longer receiving an SRS payment as of Jan. 1 will instead receive payment under a federal act that provides them 25 percent of the federal timber sale revenue from national forestlands generated in each county, the senators wrote Vilsack. In 2015 when SRS was not reauthorized until after the 25-percent payments were made, the 25-percent payment was $50 million nationwide compared to about $300 million from SRS the previous year.
“Without the certainty of SRS payments, schools, libraries and jails close, roads go unpaved and become unsafe, mental and physical health services are scaled back or even ended and fewer and fewer law enforcement officers patrol larger and larger areas,’’ Wyden and Merkley wrote. “We have talked to counties in Oregon experiencing these hardships, which will be made even worse if the remaining 25 percent payments are delayed.”
In their letter to Jewell, the senators made a similar point urging that the 18 Oregon O & C counties receive their payments in a timely fashion under the 1937 O & C Lands Act and 1939 Coos Bay Wagon Road grant fund providing counties with 50 percent of the revenue from O & C federal timber sales. When SRS was not reauthorized in 2015, those counties received $18 million from those federal timber sales and an additional $19.9 million after SRS was reauthorized.
Wyden and Merkley are continuing to work on reauthorizing the SRS program, which has brought almost $4 billion since 2000 to Oregon’s timber counties and schools all across the state.
Last year’s SRS funds were paid to the counties in March 2016 and include payments from the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. In Oregon, 33 counties received a total of $95 million in Secure Rural Schools payments earlier this year.
Wyden co-authored the original SRS legislation in 2000 with then-Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.