For Love and Lumber 

Heading south of Kalispell on Highway 93, you might notice a well-maintained sign declaring that the timber industry is half of the Flathead’s economy.

Of course, you and I and every economist know that isn’t true, as does every member of the Hoo-Hoo Club, the local logging fraternity that sponsors the billboard. It may have been true many years ago, yet the sign blazes on today, undaunted by the reality of our mixed economy.

I thought of that wishful sign when a Whitefish school board member asked me about the National Forest Counties and School Coalition. The school district had been recruited by a prominent Lincoln County lumberman to join this new national coalition of small governments, timber companies and anti-environmental wise guys.

This “Clearcuts for Kids” Coalition has emerged as the latest, desperate stab at resurrecting the 1980s National Forest plans, which promised to build thousands more miles of road and whack the biggest, best trees. Those days are gone (mostly because most of the old growth has been logged), but reactionary behavior is always greatest at the cusp of change.

The coalition is fighting a sensible and quite generous proposal by the Forest Service and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) to decouple timber receipts from Forest Service payments to counties. Industry leaders have been barnstorming rural communities in Montana and elsewhere in the West to rally opposition to this proposal, which strikes at the heart of the timber industry’s disproportionate influence over western politics.

Currently, 25 percent of federal timber receipts go to rural counties. The rationale is to compensate counties for property taxes that a private owner would pay. In Montana, two-thirds of the money goes to county roads and one-third goes to schools.

The Forest Service proposal would change this rural funding formula by increasing overall payments significantly over current levels while eliminating a perverse incentive for local governments to demand high logging levels.

Some counties are peeling off from this historic coalition, which was at the center of the 1980s “iron triangle” that married local and national politicians, industry and the Forest Service with reciprocal gifts of agency appropriations, industry campaign contributions, congressionally mandated timber targets and county payoffs.

“Don’t hold us hostage,” Oregon county commissioner Pete Sorenson testified last week in a congressional hearing in support of decoupling county payments from logging levels.

But the timber industry is not letting its captive allies loose easily. Alarmed by the administration’s golden parachute for counties reeling from federal logging reductions, the industry has orchestrated a passionate, flag-waving, tear-jerking backlash in the rural West, pushing forward schools as the ultimate victims.

“Children’s education is being used as a pawn,” says Amelia Jenkins of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

It’s not surprising that Lincoln County has emerged among the national leaders of these ghost dancers. Woe is Lincoln County, if you believe their publicity, chronically abused by the big, bad government. Lincoln County reminds me of historian Bernard DeVoto’s famous paraphrase of western attitudes toward the feds: “Get out, and give us more money!”

Montana receives much more federal largesse than its residents pay in taxes, and Lincoln County has supped deeply at that trough. Libby’s dirty little secret is that county commissioners haven’t been able to spend timber receipts fast enough. Unspent road maintenance funds have accumulated steadily into a $21 million county slush fund. Last year, the county siphoned $1.5 million in interest payments alone to its general fund.

Under the Clinton Administration proposal, Lincoln County would receive $4.66 million in 2000, adjusted annually at the rate of inflation. On a per acre basis, that’s more than twice what Plum Creek Timber Company pays in property taxes on its industrial timberland in Lincoln County.

This isn’t a payment in lieu of taxes program. The Clearcuts for Kids coalition wants federal subsidies well beyond substitute property taxes.

The unfortunate irony of these strident voices of yesteryear is that many industry leaders, including some members of the Forest Counties Coalition and even the Flathead’s Hoo-Hoo logging club, have begun to advocate community-based stewardship. They recognize that past timber policies, such as overbuilt roads, clearcutting and high-grade logging of the best trees, have damaged forest ecosystems. Even as they squawk about victimhood, they’re placing bets on the good will of diverse local collaborative groups to find reasonable, ecologically appropriate solutions.

Those solutions exist, but they aren’t going to produce high profits to counties under the 25-percent fund. Forest management that emphasizes healthy and diverse forests rather than harvest quotas will remove lower-value, small-diameter timber while retaining the best trees. Even if the total volume is high, the profit margin will be slim.

If I were king, public land managers would compensate counties at the same per-acre rate as big timber companies like Plum Creek. Montana’s counties and schools would be wise to stop whining, stop pretending and take the sweetheart deal offered by the Forest Service.

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