For years, Oregon’s major timberland owners have felt they were paying too much of the cost of fighting wildfires, especially in years when blazes stayed relatively small.
A bill in Gov. John Kitzhaber’s budget would allocate $3.6 million over the next two years to change the payment formula, so the state picks up a bigger share of the costs in years when fires don’t rage out of control. The proposal also would pay up to $6 million to keep two air tankers on call and other resources to keep minor wildfires from getting big and expensive.
“Landowners since 1993 have paid 82 percent of the cost” of putting out large fires, said Kristin McNitt, executive director of the Oregon Forest Industry Council, which represents the timber industry. “And it’s killing us.”
The governor also wants to use $4 million in lottery-backed bonds to help the U.S. Forest Service turn out more timber sales from federal lands in the dry forests east of the Cascades.
Natural Resources adviser Richard Whitman said the governor sees the two proposals as vital to maintaining the struggling timber industry in central and eastern Oregon, both as a source of jobs and as a necessary part of the infrastructure for logging that will improve forest health and reduce wildfire danger.
The region almost lost one of the half-dozen surviving mills last year, for lack of timber from national forests, Whitman said.
“If there is any further decline, it will be very hard to get back,” he said.
A wildfire policy watchdog group, however, sees the funding change as a “scam” on taxpayers that benefits the timber industry – but not the public.
Andy Stahl, director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics said any money spent on air tankers and helicopters is a waste, because there is no data to show that they are effective tools for keeping fires from getting out of control.
“At a time when we are struggling to fund schools and fund health care, why we would want to divert those dollars to some of Oregon’s largest corporations is a bit mystifying,” said Stahl. “Historic data shows no correlation between the amount of retardant dumped on a (forest) and the success rate of keeping fires small.”
The timber industry has been trying for years to change the wildfire funding formula, and last year the state Board of Forestry appointed a committee representing forest landowners, government agencies and the governor’s office, which came up with the Wildfire Protection Act.
Under the current funding formula, private landowners, whether large timber companies or homeowners with a few acres of trees, pay a tax to cover the costs of the Oregon Department of Forestry’s firefighting efforts. The tax ranges from 80 cents per acre on the wetter west side of the state, to $1.70 on the drier east side.
The first $10 million of the cost of fighting large fires is covered by private landowners. The next $15 million comes from the state general fund. After that, a special insurance policy kicks in $25 million up to a total of $50 million. In recent years, the cost of fighting large fires has averaged $8 million, so landowners have covered it alone.
The bill calls for sharing the costs evenly from the start, up to a total of $20 million. The amount the state pays would increase gradually over six years, so that at the end the cost would be split 50-50, up to $20 million. Despite the lower deductible, the cost of the insurance policy would remain at $1 million, due to increased firefighting resources, said Travis Medema, deputy chief of fire protection for the Oregon Department of Forestry.
The idea behind the state taking a greater share is that the public benefits from keeping forests green, so they provide recreation, fish and wildlife habitat, and clean water, said Whitman, of the Natural Resources Department.
As for the bottleneck in turning out more timber from national forests in eastern and central Oregon, Whitman said the problem has been a lack of funding for the Forest Service.
Sales developed collaboratively by groups that include representatives of the timber industry and conservation groups typically are not held up by court challenge. The $4 million would go to planning and laying out timber sales.
“We put money into economic development projects all the time,” Whitman said. “In terms of bang for the buck for job creation” and helping mills and logging outfits stay in business, “it looks like a pretty good investment.”
The state is still in negotiations with the Forest Service, but wants to receive payment from the sale of timber in return for the investment in preparing sales, Whitman said.
Stahl said a similar arrangement had been worked out in Arizona to promote thinning to reduce fire danger. He said it was ironic for the state to pay the federal government to log, when federal payments to timber counties to make up for reduced logging revenues have expired.