Washington’s rural communities need a federal forest solution

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category icon Columns, Opinion

In 2015, Washington state can continue to play a leading role in efforts to improve the health of our federally-owned forests while restoring economic opportunity to our rural forested communities.

Help can’t come soon enough, especially for county governments. As timber receipt revenues remain low and an extension of “Secure Rural School” payments remain unclear, some counties are faced with massive budget shortfalls that can only be addressed with draconian cuts to services.

As one example, Skamania County has been forced to cut $1.2 million by end of 2014, or about 16 percent of its current budget. This does not include the potential loss of Secure Rural Schools payments, which would require an additional $1.3 million reduction in services.

It would be the latest round of reductions to a budget that has already been cut to the bone, and would result in further layoffs in a place where the county government is one of the largest employers. Some believe Skamania will become a northern version of Josephine County, Ore., where similar cuts have led to the decimation of public safety services and a growing sense of lawlessness.

Why is Skamania County in this situation? Eighty percent of the county’s land base is the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. When other land and tax set-asides are factored in, only two percent of the county’s land base is available to private development and subject to regular yearly property taxation.

In terms of economic development and revenue generation, seasonal tourism has failed to fill the void left by the steep decline in federal timber harvests. Today, the pendulum has swung too far towards the “hands-off” approach to federal forest management, and it’s time for a change.

When it comes to forestry issues, Washington state faces both a challenge and a new opportunity for leadership on this issue. Over his three decades in Congress, Rep. Doc Hastings worked tirelessly to find better solutions for our forests and rural communities.

As Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, he authored and advanced the “Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act” that sought to renew the federal government’s commitment to managing lands for forest health and the economic benefit of rural communities. Though it was twice passed through the House in the current Congress, the U.S. Senate failed to even consider the measure.

However, as Rep. Hastings retires from office, a new leader is emerging. With the defeat of Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, Sen. Maria Cantwell will become the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She will have considerable influence on any legislation affecting the management of federal forest lands, and rural Washingtonians will look to her for solutions that help put more of our citizens back to work and enable our counties to once again achieve self-sufficiency.

Solutions are necessary because rural communities continue to suffer from high unemployment and poverty rates. It’s necessary because the U.S. Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy has found that 9.5 million acres of forests in Oregon and Washington State need treatment. At the current rate, their study found it would take 50 years to restore forest health on these federal lands. Outside the far-left, there is broad agreement that any solution will require more logging than what is being done today.

To pick up the pace, we need Sen. Cantwell and other members of Congress to take a serious look at the impediments to forest health that have not only made our forests more vulnerable to wildfire, insects and disease, but also threaten the solvency of counties and the economic health of their communities. This will not be easy, but the costs of doing nothing for our forests and communities are too great.