Counties plan ahead for loss of revenue, while environmentalists seek old-growth reserves

Second of two partsClatsop and Tillamook counties are bracing for the potential effects of ballot Measure 34.

The measure would place half of the Tillamook and Clatsop state forests in permanent reserves destined to become old growth, leaving half of the forest to be managed as it is now (see related stories).

For the last two decades, as the forest has recovered from the Tillamook Burn, harvesting timber has once again become an option. Timber sales have provided the counties with revenue stemming from the agreements reached when the counties deeded the lands to the state.

If the number of acres available for harvesting is cut in half, the resulting cut in timber revenues could be devastating for the counties.

"We need these revenues in order to stay viable," said Tillamook County Commissioner Tim Josi. "We have been waiting for years for these forests to become viable."

The financial effects of the measure are difficult to quantify, however. The team of scientists that would recommend where the reserves should be placed has yet to be chosen. Without knowing which areas might be reserves, or how much thinning or other management activities will occur on that land, the exact effect of the measure on harvests is unknown.

Still, the state Department of Administrative Services prepared a fiscal impact statement of Measure 34 this summer that assumed timber production in the Tillamook and Clatsop state forests would drop 44 percent if the measure passed. This figure was based on computer modeling that Department of Forestry staff had conducted previously, as well as their interpretation of the measure's language. Although other figures were suggested, Administrative Services ultimately used 44 percent.

According to this impact statement, timber revenues that are expected to reach $66.9 million this year from the harvest of 223 million board feet of timber would drop to $35 million if the measure is implemented. Because Measure 34 states that schools would receive the same amount of funding that they did in the 2002-03 budget year, the counties would bear the brunt of the cuts.

'Huge impact'The counties and other local taxing districts, like libraries and ports, share approximately two-thirds of the timber revenues. According to the impact statement, Clatsop County and the local governments would receive no money at all from timber revenue; this year their estimated revenue is $10.4 million. In Tillamook County, the amount falls from $4.8 million to zero.

"It would have a huge impact on Tillamook and Clatsop counties for no valid reason," said Commissioner Josi. He estimated that with this decrease, Tillamook County would have to lay off 25 percent of its employees.

Clatsop County stands to lose 24 percent of its general fund if timber revenues drop to nothing. In the county's 2004-05 budget, about a third of the money from timber sales was slated to support general fund service operations, with the remaining two-thirds supporting capital items and other one-time projects, such as PERS bond payments.

Clatsop County commissioners have already implemented a hiring freeze, except for public safety positions, as a precaution in case the ballot measure passes. The commissioners have also postponed projects including road work and building renovations.

Other timber revenue recipients are treading cautiously as well.

"Until we know the outcome of Measure 34, we need to look at cash flow very closely," Port of Astoria Commissioner Don McDaniel said at Tuesday's port workshop session.

Leaving the county governments with no funds breaks the trust-like agreement the state and counties made when the counties deeded over the forest lands, said Josi. If the measure does pass, the counties will challenge its legality.

"We'll take them to court. We don't have any choice - financially this breaks our backs," he said.

Indirect impactsMari Anne Gest of the Yes on 34 Political Action Committee, which is supporting the measure, disagrees with the way the administrative services department calculated the impacts and said that the effect on the counties would actually be less drastic.

She added that the financial statement only considers direct impacts. With old-growth forests in place, the counties will benefit indirectly by attracting the tourist and recreation dollars. Forests also attract people and businesses considering a move to the state.

"Retirees are moving to that area because it's beautiful. If you cut down the forests, screw up the water, they're not going to come," said Gest. If you ask businesses or residents why they came to Oregon, Gest said, they say it's because of the natural beauty and outdoor activities.

"It's all around our forests and our water. It's the No. 1 reason people move to Oregon. Is there economic dollars in that? Obviously."

Lawsuits loomWhile environmental groups are concerned that timber interests have too much power over state forest activities, supporters of the existing plan said they fear environmentalists are trying to prohibit all logging on the state forests.

Section 9 of the measure allows anyone to file a lawsuit to contest timber sales that they believe are not following the measures, which could hold up all operations, said Josi.

"We believe that in the end, the harvest will be next to nil," said Mark Nelson, campaign director for Keep Our State Forests Working, a Salem-based timber industry group which is spearheading opposition to the measure. If the measure passes, "what will follow is lawsuit after lawsuit to prohibit the harvesting by the same environmental groups."

The measure's language is also worrisome to Nelson. While it states that thinning can be allowed for the health of the forest, there is no guarantee that it will actually occur, he said.

"They can say they're going to do anything they want, but the practical fact is that people from that persuasion believe you don't do anything to a forest," he said, referring to the environmentalists supporting this measure.

If the thinning and other forest management activities don't occur, it could leave the forest vulnerable to forest fires.

The ability of the department to fight forest fires would suffer as well, Nelson said. The state Department of Forestry gets approximately one-third of the timber revenue. In 2005, this is expected to be $18.8 million, or about 63 percent of the state forest program's budget. Cuts in this would mean cuts in areas like the fire fighting program.

Budget cuts would also hinder projects like riverbank restorations or improvements to recreation facilities.

"They spend millions of dollars a year creating trails and campgrounds and overall increasing recreational opportunities in our state forest lands," said Josi. "They also spend millions of dollars a year on environmental enhancement projects, such as taking out culverts that block fish passages."

If the ballot measure passes, he said, the department "won't have the dollars available to continue with the environmental restoration projects and recreation projects at the same level that they're doing now."

BalanceBoth sides in the debate over Measure 34 stress that they want balance between ecosystem preservation, recreational opportunities and timber production in the forest; they differ on whether they believe that balance exists with the current plan.

"We need to restore balance - enough of the fighting," said Gest. "We can have both if we just come together and agree that there's enough for everyone."

Forest managers and others say that goal was achieved with the adoption of the forest management plan three years ago after a lengthy hearing process. Environmentalists say Nov. 2's ballot measure is necessary to achieve balance.

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