A group of citizens lobbing Oregon legislators are pressing to reverse the timber tax cuts that were imposed in the 1990s.
Representatives from the group, Tax Fairness Oregon, came before the Columbia County Board of Commissioners on Feb. 10 to explain the effort and seek support.
The move largely follows an Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) and Pro Publica investigation into Oregon’s timber taxes. Part of the investigation estimated each of the state’s western county’s revenue loss since the severance tax was taken away in 1991. For Columbia County, the estimate federal payment loss came to $29.9 million and the estimated severance tax loss came to $134.5 million, according to data from Pro Publica.
The timber tax cuts are estimated to have cost counties over $3 billion over the past 30 years, the news agency reported.
The Endangered Species Act reduced logging on federal land in an effort to protect the northern spotted owl. Private forestland owners, large timber owning companies like Weyerhauser, used to pay severance tax on harvested timber at a rate of 6.5% which was lowered to 3.2% in 1992.
Tax Fairness Oregon founder Jody Wiser estimated that the county could expect $5.8 million in revenue if the harvest tax was brought back at 6% and assuming a similar level of logging today as there was in 1997 with a 60% return in tax rate. She also said that Oregon is behind its neighboring states in timber tax, like Washington.
“Oregon has more forestland with more trees harvested, but severance tax—harvest tax— collects one third of what Washington does,” Wiser said.
A citizens' lead effort has resulted in Senate Bill 288. If enacted, the legislation would return 60% of the tax to counties as property tax. Five percent of the collected tax would go toward funding the Department of Environmental Quality to protect drinking water in logged forests; 20% would go toward water infrastructure, treatment facilities, watershed improvements and land acquisition; and 15% would go toward community emergency preparedness
Catherine Thomasson, retired director of Physicians for Social Responsibility and a climate change activist, said the new timber tax bills being introduced will also help protect local drinking watersheds for communities, some which have been threatened by current logging practices.
“Forests are so great at capturing water, storing water and releasing it over time,” Thomasson said. “Roads cause the most persistent damage to drinking water sources. Landslides add silt to water sources which can be expensive and unhealthy to filter out with chemicals.”
Logging laws require a 20 foot tree buffer to left around streams, but Thomasson said the buffer is insufficient as the trees are vulnerable to wind and can fall into the water source, adding silt and removing shade. Removing shade warms the water, which can cause algae blooms.
By imposing a severance tax, Thomasson hopes the tax incentives will protect some of the older trees which require less water.
Follow the proposed timber tax legislation at oregonlegislature.gov/citizen_engagement/Pages/Find-a-Bill.aspx