Senators seeking fire protection money in form of tax

Kristy Tallman

Two Oregon senators are seeking a way to pay for the added yearly cost of preventing and fighting wildfires. They didn’t look inward; instead they seek to either tax the timber companies on private lands or tax you.

In a state where wildfires are growing more and more each year in magnitude and damage, Oregon lawmakers are seeking funds to cover the added expense. Currently the state through Oregon’s Department of Forestry (ODF) collects what is known as Wildfire Protection and Response costs from private forest and range landowners. The cost to cover this fund for 2024 is $136 million. Approximately 48 percent of that cost is currently paid by private landowners.

Industrial timber landowners own approximately 30% of the 16 million acres protected by ODF.

As the number of wildfires continues to increase, so too does the cost to provide protection. To cover this cost, State Sen. Jeff Golden D-Ashland and Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland have come up with competing proposals.

Golden’s plan is geared toward an assemblance of a traditional severance tax that had been imposed during the 90’s. This would impose a tax on the value of timber harvested on private land. His proposal seeks to earn $75 million or more in tax revenues for fire prevention.

“We had that tax for about 30 years,” Golden said. “It produced over a hundred million dollars per year, and it was a simple percentage on the value of logs that were cut. And it really helped Flint County governments. And in a political deal in the 1990s, it went away. Since then, the taxation of the timber industry went way, way, way down”.

Golden hopes this will help the smaller timber operations as they wouldn’t pay the same rates as companies such as Weyerhaeuser.

“In the current draft of the bill, the percentage goes higher for operators that own more land. So it says there’s no tax at all for any timber coming off of 500 acres or less, and then it goes up a percent at a time,” Golden said

Golden also includes in his proposal a higher tax for real estate investment trusts (REIT) who purchase the land but never step foot in Oregon or contribute to the state. He proposes a tiered taxing system where larger timber corporations and REIT groups would mostly absorb the costs. He expects this to provide relief for the smaller timber companies who have been invested in the state for decades, even centuries. He also hopes to help out the ranchers with no liquidity through the sales of timber or other crops to offset the costs of fire protections they are unable to afford.

“The biggest issue,” he explained, “Oregon forests are owned by REITS, R E I T S, which stands for Real Estate Investment Trusts. And the biggest forest owners in Oregon now are like that. They are given special income tax treatment so that their overall tax load to help support public services is so low right now, it’s pennies on a thousand board feet of lumber that they cut.”

Steiner’s proposal is aimed directly at Oregonians who own land. She proposes to collect a $10 tax from the people to cover the additional costs. She also contends that landowners with the lowest production timber lands are now paying some of the highest assessments for that protection. Her proposal seeks to blanket the state with a tax while also revisiting three other taxes property owners already pay to adjust for inflation.

Steiner’s bill would collect $20 million a year, about 15% of the projected total cost for wildfire protection in 2024.

For Golden, it’s all about finding remedies to a problem all Oregonians are facing with the best possible solutions. He has invited others in his caucus as well as the public to share ideas and solutions to build a better bill.

Golden’s proposal also focuses on where the funds would be distributed throughout the state. According to his preliminary figures, 40% would go to the counties, 25% to the fire marshall, 25% to the Oregon Department of Forestry, and 10% for water restoration.

His proposal is more aimed at fire prevention and ways to help communities prepare for wildfires. The funding is intended to be invested in equipment, education and preventative measures to assist communities in avoiding total losses as his community did in the 2020 fires.

Golden serves District 3, which includes Medford, Phoenix, Talent, Ashland, Jacksonville, Ruch and the Applegate Valley.

Both proposals will be presented at the legislature. Golden hopes his proposal will reach the 2024 ballot for Oregonians to decide.

Until then he has presented what he feels is a good start to fire prevention for future fire seasons to come.

Background

To get some perspective the ODF declared an end to the 2023 fire season with a total of 1,909 fires, burning a total of 190,507 acres.

Most wildfires are human-caused (89% on average from 2017 to 2021), although the wildfires caused by lightning tend to be slightly larger and burn more acreage (52% of the average acreage burned from 2017 to 2021 was ignited by lightning).

Generally, the number of wildfires on federal lands is greater than on state or private lands because the federal government manages just under 18 million forested acres or 60% of the forestland in Oregon. In 2023, lightning was the cause for 157 fires burning a total of 7,813 acres. Oregon’s notorious lightning alley is located throughout federal and state public lands.

In 2021, according to most available statistics provided by the United States Congress, 80% (4.9 million acres) of the acreage burned in the western part of the nation was on federal land. As of July 25, 2023, the federal government employed 11,187 wildland firefighters nationwide, which was 99% of their goal of 11,300. Of those 1,934 are part of the Pacific Northwest team.

Opposition For Both Bills Have Surfaced

State Sen. Cedric Hayden, R-Fall Creek, said of Golden’s bill, “At a time when we have record high revenue coming into the state coffers, so much that we have a $5.6 BILLION dollar Kicker Tax we have to refund to Oregonians because we over-taxed them, and at a time when timber companies are shutting down and laying off workers, like the recent layoffs in Washington County, now is the wrong time to seek new tax revenues from Oregonians impacted by an inflationary record-high cost of living and record-high costs of doing business.”

Hayden continued, “Such a proposal is tone deaf to what’s happening in our timber industry. I’ll be voting NO on such a measure that would have the net effect of hurting rural Oregon workers.”

Critics of Steiner’s proposal say her proposal shifts the protection cost onto the people rather than those who stand to profit from the lands. They feel it gives an unfair advantage to large corporations and out-of-state REITs over long time Oregonian timber and ranch landowners.

State Rep. Jami Cate, R-Lebanon said she couldn’t see the logic or rationale in Golden’s proposal or how it stood to help communities in Oregon. “Nothing about the financial liabilities of fire prevention nor firefighting imposed on our timber industry is fair, and to stick them with even more financial burden when they already bear a much higher rate of taxation than other business sectors in the state is unconscionable.”

Cate feels other issues are at play in fire prevention that needs addressing before assessing another tax on timber companies throughout the state.

“Our timber companies were able to manage our forests to prevent these mega-fires in a way that was profitable, sequestering carbon and utilizing a renewable resource; but now in the name of saving our climate and the spotted owl, our forests are a tinderbox waiting to burn and take our communities with them-unless we force someone to pay vast sums of money that won’t make a lick of difference in actually protecting our communities.”

Milt Moran of Cascade Timber Consulting in Sweet Home said he didn’t feel timber companies and private landowners were going to see much relief in the near future. He explained how landowners already pay protection fees yearly.

“Landowners are members of the association. We work with our local state forestry office here in Sweet Home to build the budgets for the proper amount of firefighters and equipment to get us our best adequate level of protection for the year. So all the landowners, the state forestry, fire departments and the logging contractors out there, we are all part of the complete and coordinated system of Oregon’s firefighting. We build our budgets and then we assess ourselves through our board of directors and the state guys to come up with the appropriate budget.”

He continued, “We work with the state guys to come up with the appropriate budget, and then we assess ourselves every year for the money that we need to pay the state in advance for the fire protection we need that coming year.”

Moran described how the private landowners already are responsible for the clean up and reforestation of lands they log and how they are expected to keep and maintain the roadways of these logging areas. They also have their own firefighters and equipment they invest in to help ensure small fires stay small.

“Our private lands, we reforest them, we take care of them, keep our infrastructure up, our roads, firefighting resources,” Moran said. “You know, if you get a really bad wind, we can have a really big fire, but our fires are usually pretty doggone small unless it comes racing across the property line from the fork.”

Moran says preparing for and fighting wildfires in Oregon is an ongoing effort for companies like his but he certainly doesn’t see a need to be taxed more. He says the costs are getting astronomically higher every year putting smaller landowners in peril.

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