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Clackamas County Commissioner Jamie Damon will advocate for timber sales from federal lands in the county

The age-old battle between the conservationists and preservationists is coming to a conclusion, if Gov. John Kitzhaber has anything to do with it.

There have always been watchdogs for the preservation of natural features of public land, but especially in Oregon that standoff has nearly paralyzed some counties that contain significant amounts of federally-owned timber land. Examples of timber-dependent counties are Douglas, Josephine, Curry and Columbia.

While all county budgets could use an influx of funds, Clackamas isn’t as timber-dependent as others in Oregon, even though the county used to receive millions of dollars from timber harvest.

But Kitzhaber wants the problem solved. The governor has appointed a high-level task force that brings to one table all sides of the issue, and the group’s instructions are to work until its members come to an acceptable compromise that assists Oregon’s Congressional delegation to change the status quo.

The status quo is defined by meager harvests and few dollars flowing into county coffers.

Commissioner Jamie DamonMillions of dollars for public services and many family-wage jobs are at stake, says Clackamas County Commissioner Jamie Damon of Eagle Creek, who Kitzhaber selected to join the task force.

“The reason the governor put this group together,” Damon said, “is because we have counties that are on the brink of insolvency.

“Some of these counties have a tremendous portfolio of these lands and a huge reliance on receipts coming from federally-managed lands. They just don’t have any other economy to substitute.”

Damon joins 13 other officials representing not only three other county commissions, but also six conservation groups and four from the forest products industry. Mediator John Ehrmann of the Meridian Institute will facilitate the task force.

The federal lands in question are called O&C lands because the federal government in the 1860s gave about 2.4 million acres of timberland to the Oregon and California Railroad to encourage development. Then, the O&C Act of 1937 dedicated the land to the economic benefit of 18 western Oregon counties.

Damon said Clackamas County has approximately 95,000 acres of O&C land: more than 75,000 managed by the Bureau of Land Management and another 20,000 managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

The problem facing many western Oregon counties stems from the fact none of this land contributes property taxes to the general funds of the O&C counties.

The sale of timber from those lands has been curtailed significantly by conservation measures supported by environmentalists and the management practices of the federal agencies.

While Clackamas County has been able to “backfill” some deficits created by the loss of timber revenue, it is not as bad off as other counties. Calling it a “dramatic decline,” Damon said Clackamas County used to receive about $12 million in annual timber revenue, but this year received less than $1 million as payment in lieu of taxes. In previous years, Damon said, one-half of the county’s timber revenue was spent on public schools and the other half went into the general fund.

During the 16 months Damon has been a commissioner, she says she has been able to get about 3,000 acres of timber harvested on county lands.

“We had two sales last spring,” she said, “and they were picked up by the mill in Molalla. They were cruised by local cruisers, and hauled by local haulers. Those were jobs for our community.”

While appointing Damon to this state panel, Kitzhaber recognized her advocacy for O&C lands as well as for building local employment.

The governor as well as Damon favor managed timber harvests to provide jobs and income to pay for critical public services in each of the O&C counties. But there are other people with differing views at the table, and Damon says it also isn’t easy to get legislation passed in Congress.

“We’re looking for a coordinated solution out of Oregon,” she said, “that the major stakeholder groups can support.”

Kitzhaber expects the task force to craft a proposal to take to the Oregon delegation and Congress in early 2013.

“We’re not under any illusion that this will be easy,” said Kitzhaber. “But the human and environmental costs of the status quo are unacceptable, and Oregonians have shown time and again their ability to come together to solve difficult problems.

“An Oregon solution that protects the environment, creates jobs in rural communities, and helps restore funding for critical services is our best hope for O&C counties, and we have the right people at the table to get it done.”

Damon is enthusiastic about this task, even though it means weekly meetings until year’s end. But it’s not the first time she’s advocated for restoring timber harvesting on O&C lands.

“I’m really pleased that I have been able to get Clackamas at the table,” she said, “and that the rest of the state sees value in that.”

Members of the collaborative task force have agreed to remain silent about their progress until the end of December, in order to minimize the potential for the issue to become biased or politicized.

“We all understand that (the issue of harvesting timber) is delicate and challenging,” Damon said, “and we’ve all committed to work within a confidentiality agreement.”

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