The history and legacy of O&C Lands

Guaranteed federal timber subsidies to counties

In the late 1800s, as an incentive for rail development, a stretch of land from Portland south to California was granted by the federal government to the Oregon and California Railroad (O&C) company to build a rail line.  The terms of the land grant required the O&C company to only sell land to “bona fide settlers.”  Instead, the O&C company sold the land to timber companies, in a land scandal that included many members of congress and led to a anti-corruption lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court instructed Congress to solve the land-holding dilemma, which eventually led to the Oregon & California Lands Act of 1937, which transferred management of 2.5 million acres of  land throughout western Oregon to the federal agency that would become the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
The O&C Lands Act was enacted as a conservation act – one of the first federal bills to incorporate the concept of “sustained yield.”  According to the Act, O&C Lands “shall be managed... in conformity with the principal of sustained yield for the purpose of providing a permanent source of timber supply, protecting watersheds, regulating streamflow, and contributing to the economic stability of the local Communities and industries, and providing recreational facilities.” Additionally, the O&C Lands Act mandated that 50% of timber profits from logging (timber receipts) be given to the counties containing the O&C land to make up for lost revenue from private property taxes. So began the O&C Lands legacy and ensuing economic and environmental conundrum that continues to this day!

Clearcutting old growth forests to pay for county services

O&C land stretches down the western flanks of the Cascade mountain range and into southern Oregon.  This low elevation land was once blanketed with highly productive ancient forest, much of which was clearcut during a cycle of boom and bust logging, generating enormous profits for the timber industry and marking the peak of timber receipt revenue for O&C counties. Meanwhile, many of the 18 counties with O& C land developed economies and county governments based on this unsustainable level of logging and timber receipts, while failing to establish adequate property taxes or other methods to generate revenue for social services and government.

Inevitably, these unsustainable levels of old growth timber harvest would not last. The timber market crashed in the early eighties, and again in the nineties. In addition, the increased awareness of the irreversible impact of logging to wildlife species and water, led to the landmark Northwest Forest Plan in 1994, which brought the BLM and Forest Service under the same set of environmental laws for the first time.  With most of the big trees long gone, there is simply no way, economically or ecologically, to return to the levels of logging that once drove a booming timber economy for O&C Counties.

More bailouts rather than real help; kicking the can down the road again!

On the other side of the boom and bust ride, O&C Counties began seeking solutions to replace income from timber receipts. Rather than increasing property taxes, Oregon’s Congressional delegation began seeking federal government bailouts. What followed was the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Self Determination Act in 2000, which initiated annual government subsidies to Oregon’s O&C Counties based on the three most lucrative years of old-growth logging. This set an unrealistic bar to which these counties became accustomed.  Government subsidies have continued for over a decade, and many O&C counties have continually voted down property tax increase (O&C counties have artificially low property taxes – among the lowest in Oregon – due to the federal subsidies). Now, with the government ready to cut off payments once and for all, Oregon’s congressional delegation is scrambling to draft legislation to “solve” the financial crisis of O&C Counties- with extreme bills that threaten 1.5 million acres of public land with increased logging, including old-growth clearcutting, and weakening federal environmental laws in the process.

For an even more in depth look at the history of O&C Lands, check out this resource on Oregon Wild’s website.

Conservation groups across the state are up in arms about recent proposals to ramp up public lands logging. Read more about Senator Wyden’s threats to Oregon’s forests (and public lands across the nation).