Since 1989 through 2012, according to the BLM, the Coos Bay Wagon Road grant lands have generated more than $73 million in revenue, most of it from timber sales. Since 2000, timber harvests alone have generated $17 million for the federal treasury and is supposed to benefit Coos and Douglas counties proportionately, but where is the money?

debate1In recent years there has been a lot of debate about who should manage the Coos Bay Wagon Road grant lands. Currently managed by the BL M, the county’s approximately 60,000 acre share of CBWR accounts for less than 5% of the county’s total land mass but, depending upon whom you talk to, that sliver of land rich with federal timber could be the answer to all Coos County’s fiscal problems. The CBWR lands came into being through an 1869 Act of Congress in exchange for successfully constructing a military wagon road between Roseburg and Coos Bay, a road the county is responsible for maintaining to this day. A 1939 Act further distinguished the CBWR from the surrounding O&C lands by establishing both the manner of calculating payments and restricting the distribution of said payments proportionately to just Coos and Douglas counties. This explains why management of CBWR is so coveted by local entities like the Coquille Indian Tribe, 75% of any revenue is supposed to stay here.

The Act of 1939 also offers an option to decouple receipts paid to the counties from timber harvests and market demand through payments in lieu of taxes based upon the assessed “value of the land and the timber thereon.” Commissioner Bob Main, a former county assessor, estimates the annual payments using this method at approximately $10 million. Inexplicably, no commission to date has opted for this method choosing or perhaps gambling that timber harvest receipts would bring in more cash and right or wrong, up till now, they have at least had the choice. Senator Ron Wyden’s forest resources bill proposes to strip away that choice and permanently tether the county to the vagaries of the timber market.

Wyden’s bill proposes not only to deprive Coos County of 5% of its potential tax base but by tossing CBWR timber revenues into the collective pot to be divvied up between all eighteen O&C counties, the county will receive just a sixth of what it would under the 1939 Act. If the Senator fails to fully comprehend the distinction between CBWR and O&C he may be partially forgiven for precious little has been done by commissions past and present to enforce the 1939 Act. Congress has lumped CBWR receipts into the Secure Rural Schools payments distributed to all O&C counties without a peep of complaint from county commissioners.

The issues surrounding CBWR are undeniably complex and even the current commission gets confused. Wyden has been very clear he will not transfer management of federal lands, nevertheless the commissioners wrote a letter imploring the Senator to do just that and include a provision of HB 1526, Peter DeFazio’s bill giving control of CBWR to Coos County. The letter, penned by Melissa Cribbins and signed by all three commissioners, appears to conflate O&C lands with CBWR claiming the latter was “revested” to the federal government and ignores the prime distinguishing feature, that being the distribution of payments. Members of the O&C Rail Road Company engaged in and many were convicted of fraud prompting a 1916 Act that led to the revestiture of the O&C grant lands. Conversely, the Coos Bay Wagon Road Company met its contractual obligations to the federal government by building the road. Eventually, the CBWR was not revested, but instead reconveyed to the federal government.

Coos County citizens have long observed different entities fighting over whom best to manage the CBWR. The Coquille Tribe has repeated its claims to generate the most revenue but it can only do this if it is freed of the constraints of the Northwest Forest Plan and NEPA. The county wants to manage CBWR but only under the less restrictive Oregon Forest Practices Act. All three commissioners have snubbed pressure from local citizens to request Wyden enforce the existing Act of 1939 payment-in-lieu-of-taxes option, an option that would provide a predictable revenue stream decoupled from the timber industry. Cribbins went so far as to say the Senator might construe pressure to enforce the 1939 Act as “insulting.” Instead, the commission opted to wait to see what Wyden’s bill has to offer.

The bill is widely panned by the timber industry and the Association of O&C Counties as well as environmental groups. At the last commissioners’ meeting Main gave a long lament about how inadequate the bill is for Coos County. Now that the commissioners have at long last laid eyes on the bill, what are they going to do about?

There may be a silver lining, however, because in addition to highlighting the pitfalls of tethering the delivery of county services to timber receipts it may provide the final nudge to seeking alternatives. “I guess”, said Main with a shrug of his shoulders, “we are just going to have to figure this out for ourselves.” Amen to that!