The idea of forest trusts for managing national forests is not new but it has gotten new life as a way to raise money for struggling rural counties, especially in Idaho and Oregon.
Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labradors Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act is the latest bill that picks up on the novel idea to set up a trust over an area of public land to show it can be managed better. I think it has a good chance of approval in the House Resources Committee and even to pass the House.
The bill wont be needed to keep the rural counties getting their federal money this year. A deal that moves the transportation bill includes reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act for now.
But the public forest trust idea itself might get legs, at least as pilot project. Randal OToole, a libertarian policy analyst, came up with the idea in the 1980s as an alternative to the Forest Service management he had skewered intellectually in his 1988 book Reforming the Forest Service.
OToole, of Bandon, Ore., argued that the agencys timber sale program, which funded at the time many of its programs, gave managers an incentive to overharvest forests, degrade water quality and build too many roads. His arguments brought many eastern and Midwest conservatives on board of environmental fights to reduce old growth timber harvests.
These are the same reductions that counties say justify their call for federal dollars or a forest trust to generate revenue. The counties got 25 percent of Forest Service timber sale proceeds and even more from the Bureau of Land Management lands in Oregon.
OToole suggested a pilot project where a ranger district would be turned over to a trust board for management much like Labradors bill would do. Environmental laws would be in force only as they would be for private forest land. But in setting up the trustees and the responsibilities, the various interests, fish, wildlife, local communities, recreation interests and others would be considered.
User fees would be central to the plan along with timber sales and other resource marketing. He would set up a fund to offset access fees for people who couldnt afford them.
Today OToole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute. His latest book is American Nightmare: How Government Undermines the Dream of Homeownership. He has become a leading voice against urban planning, smart growth and public transit.
Hes the darling of groups like the Idaho Freedom Foundation. But he hates seeing his idea of forest trusts established to benefit rural counties.
The truth is that taxpayers in these counties (of which I am one) have been getting a free ride for decades, OToole writes in a guest opinion aimed at Oregon newspapers. While federal lands impose little cost on counties, the payments out of timber receipts have been many times greater than the federal government would have paid if it had paid ordinary property taxes.
The man who offers to the Republican Party the forest trusts as a free market alternative to federal management of public lands doesnt think the counties deserve the proceeds. In Oregon, OToole said, raising property taxes to somewhere around the statewide average would solve the problems in all but two of the counties.
In Idaho five counties, Boundary, Clearwater, Idaho, Shoshone and Valley developed the forest trust proposal. Look at the overall property tax rates in 2011 and only Shoshones rate is higher than the statewide average of 1.294 percent.
Idaho Countys property tax rate was .668 percent. But it and many of these counties are among the poorest in the state with the highest unemployment.
OToole says if the counties cant or wont raise taxes then they should cut back on any spending that is what he calls a luxury, including recreation, cultural resources and community development.
Questioning the counties justification for the money is not good politics anywhere in the Pacific Northwest. But OToole doesnt need anyones vote.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484