Federal subsidy late; Oregon timber counties unhappy

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Timber counties in western Oregon are unhappy that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is taking so long to send out $2 million in federal subsidies withheld under the mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration.

In February, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management withheld 10 percent of the money due to those counties while making the last payment under the subsidy known as the Secure Rural Schools Act.

New calculations by the BLM indicated the agency only needed to keep half of that amount.

Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson said the agency promised two months ago that the money would be forthcoming but then said it won’t be sent until the end of June, straining county budgets. The payment amounts to about $400,000 for Douglas County, one of the top recipients of the money known as O&C funds.

“For counties struggling, as many are, it’s a very important piece of the budget process to get settled,” said Robertson, president of the O&C Counties Association, which represents the 18 timber counties.

BLM spokeswoman Celia Boddington said the money should be sent out by the end of June.

“Calculating the sequester impacts is complex and we need to be sure that the payments we provide the O&C counties are accurate,” she said in an email.

The counties have maintained that the sequester does not apply to the funding because Congress approved the money last year.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., was going to introduce an amendment to the Farm Bill on Wednesday requiring BLM to pay the money within seven days.

“Sen. Merkley believes we need to help out our rural timber counties,” spokeswoman Courtney Warner Crowell said. “This mistake couldn’t have come at a worse time.”

Since 1937, the O&C counties have received half the revenues from timber cut on a patchwork of federal lands in western Oregon that reverted to the federal government after the bankruptcy of the Oregon and California Railroad.

The lands are managed by BLM. When logging was booming in the 1970s, some counties did not have to charge property taxes. But since logging cutbacks were implemented on federal lands to protect the northern spotted owl and salmon, the payments dropped precipitously. A federal safety net to make up for the drop is expiring.

The U.S. Forest Service sent out the full payments under its share of the safety net but then demanded the counties pay back the portion cut by the sequester.

It gave states the option to repay the sequestered amount from a portion of Secure Rural Schools funding that goes to conservation projects, not the counties.

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