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COMMENTARY: All Oregonians already pay for wildfires, so why should they pay more?

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A closed-door group has proposed that property taxes be increased to pay for wildfires. (Oregon Department of Forestry/Flickr)


In a recent OPB story that covered the impact of the Oregon Legislature’s decision to eliminate the timber severance tax 30 years ago, it was noted that neither former Gov. John Kitzhaber nor then-Rep. Lane Shetterly recalled the bill.

While I can believe that Kitzhaber doesn’t recall signing the legislation, it strains credulity that Shetterly, now president of the Oregon Environmental Council and the state House member who carried the bill, forgot. I know I’d be stumped to recall some things brought forth by the Ashland City Council for my signature during my 12-years as mayor, but anything I had championed.

For those of you arriving late to the party, here’s the backstory of how big timber and elimination of the severance tax unfolded in southern Oregon.

When my former husband, Jeff Golden (now state senator), and I married in 1979 on our 20-acre parcel just outside Butte Falls, Butte Falls was a small but robust community with one of the best school districts in Jackson County, largely funded by the timber severance tax. Many area residents worked for the Medford Corporation, a vertically integrated wood-products company that had carefully managed the forestland east of Medford since the 1890s.

One hundred years later, MedCo endured a hostile takeover by a Dallas, Texas millionaire, Harold Simmons, who basically clear-cut the land, ran the trees through MedCo, liquidated the mill and blamed environmentalists for its closure and the economic disaster that followed.

About that time, Golden, serving as a Jackson County commissioner, saw the writing on the wall and was the first in the state to advocate for re-training opportunities for displaced timber workers and to urge sawmills to downsize to accommodate smaller-diameter logs. In response, local leaders who were in the timber industry along with timber barons, told him, “He did not know who buttered his bread” and pulled a recall petition to remove him from office. Although the recall was unsuccessful, as predicted, local mills closed one after another, and logs, rather than lumber, were shipped from Coos Bay to China. Timber companies made nothing but money.

With climate change and yearly forest fires impacting local economies, some are suggesting Oregonians, whose tax dollars already pay the lion’s share for wildfire programs through the general fund, should start paying even more with a brand new tax. To shove the costs onto average taxpayers, a closed-door work group led by Sen. Steiner, D-Portland, put out a proposal, edited by a Weyerhaeuser Corporation lobbyist, which originally imposed a new fee on every property tax bill to fight forest fires. The proposal would also cut  $12 million that timber landowners and ranchers pay in yearly fees to the state.

Steiner says fighting wildfires is a statewide issue and therefore should be paid by all of us. I agree and we are all paying. Ashland, like other communities, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last 30 years removing from our watersheds highly flammable ladder fuels, or low branches and shrubs that spread wildfires; we pay yearly through the impact that our local economy endures due to smoke and fewer tourists; and we pay in property taxes. Indeed, Ashland landowners, like me, pay $3,000 per acre on farmland compared to Weyerhaeuser’s $4.60 per acre for their “timber farmland.”

We can do better than to further subsidize the timber industry.

This session, Golden is proposing a ballot measure that would tax the value of timber harvested to pay for wildfire abatement. This is a fair proposal that deserves our support and that of the state Legislature.

Catherine Shaw   Catherine Shaw lives in Ashland on two acres of farmland, served three terms as mayor of Ashland from 1989 to 2000, and worked as a staffer for former state legislator, Alan Bates. She’s also the author of “The Campaign Manager, Running and Winning Local Elections.”

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