Merkley calls for bill to create task force for timber revenue

For his first bill, Sen. Jeff Merkley called in reinforcements.

Fulfilling a campaign promise to introduce legislation aimed at solving the perpetual revenue challenges of Oregon’s timber-dependent counties, Merkley proposed creating a task force of 15 members that would take nine months to develop two sustainable revenue proposals.

Merkley introduced the bill on the Senate floor on Monday afternoon, then took questions from Oregon journalists during a conference call that was short on specifics.

Merkley acknowledged that the task force approach has been tried in the past and could probably be created administratively without the need for a congressional vote.

Federal payments help counties that once depended on revenue from logging on federal forests. That revenue declined drastically after protections for species at risk of extinction dramatically reduced logging on Oregon’s public forests starting in 1994. Congress has consistently stepped in to fill the gap since then.

This year, Oregon counties received more than $133 million, $33 million of that for Lane County. However, the assistance always comes with an expiration date and the current funds sunset at the end of fiscal year 2011.

Merkley’s bill, co-sponsored by Sen. RonWyden, D-Ore., looks ahead to that day, he said.

Under the proposed legislation, task force members would come from affected counties, the timber industry, environmental organizations, labor and recreation groups, Indian tribes and the governor’s office. Individuals with expertise in natural resource economics, sustainable forestry, biomass energy, carbon sequestration and ecosystem services also would be involved.

Merkley said he expects the task force to consider revenue options that would include using forest biomass as a source of cellulosic ethanol, and carbon sequestration in standing trees that could generate income if greenhouse gas emissions are capped and traded as some legislators have proposed.