Bill Aims for Ore. Taxpayers to Cover More Costs of Fires on Private Forests

July 5, 2005

Taxpayers would shoulder more of the burden of shielding Oregon’s private forests from fires under a bill that won approval from the Oregon House this week.

The legislation, which now heads to the Senate, is an attempt to revamp how the state pays for firefighters and Oregon’s catastrophic wildfire insurance policy.

The bill would require taxpayers to help pay for half of that insurance, plus assume the risk for as much as $10 million in additional firefighting costs in a nasty fire season.

The bill sailed through the House with a 47-12 vote, despite complaints from some conservationists that the new subsidies amount to corporate welfare.

Rep. Chuck Burley, R-Bend, who supported the legislation, said the public enjoys a number of benefits from private forests such as jobs and access to recreation opportunities.

And Rep. Susan Morgan, R-Myrtle Creek, said the public was responsible for a third of the forest fires on private land between 1984 and 2003, according to Department of Forestry figures. The rest were caused by lightning and landowners.

Until now, the insurance policy has been purchased exclusively by the Oregon Forest Land Protection Fund, which is fed by assessments on private timber owners, fees on homeowners whose homes are situated among trees, and some taxpayer money,

But with costs climbing for fire suppression, private landowners are looking for additional dollars from public coffers.

Timber companies say the legislation is a fairer way to divide the costs, and give themselves credit for supporting a cost-sharing model unlike any other in the West.

“We’re paying costs that landowners in other states don’t pay, and we will keep paying those costs, so it’s annoying that people are suggesting that we’re getting away with something,” said Ray Wilkeson, lobbyist for the Oregon Forest Industries Council.

But Jessica Hamilton of the Oregon Conservation Network, a coalition of 80 environmental organizations and their allies, argued that the Legislature shouldn’t be tapping into the general fund when other state services such as schools and healthcare have unmet needs.

Instead, she said lawmakers should tap an existing harvest tax, which now pays for timber industry marketing.

While the bill would put additional costs on taxpayers, it also takes steps to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic and expensive blazes.

The bill allows the state to buy a less expensive insurance policy, and the saved dollars would be funneled to “quick-strike” capacity at the Department of Forestry.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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