SALEM State taxpayers should shoulder more of the costs of protecting Oregon’s private forestland from fires, the House decided Thursday.
The legislation, which now heads to the Senate, is the culmination of more than two years of work by the timber industry and rural lawmakers to rework how the state pays for firefighters and Oregon’s one-of-a-kind 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 breezed through the House by a 47-12 vote, despite complaints the new subsidies amount to corporate welfare.
“Wildland firefighting is a partnership between landowners and the state,” said Rep. Chuck Burley, R-Bend, a certified forester and timber industry consultant, in support of the legislation.
He said the public enjoys a number of benefits from private forests such as jobs and access to recreation opportunities like hunting, wildlife habitat, water supplies and scenic views. And damage to a region’s economy from a fire can be severe, he said.
Rep. Susan Morgan, R-Myrtle Creek, who shepherded the development of House Bill 2327, noted that the public was responsible for 34.4 percent of forest fires on private land between 1984 and 2003, according to Department of Forestry figures.
Lightning caused 31.3 percent and landowners were responsible for 34.2 percent.
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 and by fees on homeowners in wildland interface zones, where houses sit in the trees.
Some taxpayer money also flows into that fund.
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 divvy up the costs and also stress that the industry is supporting what is a cost-sharing model. Elsewhere in the West, it is up to taxpayers to pick up the entire tab for firefighting on private lands.
“We’re paying costs that landowners in other states don’t pay, and we will keep paying those costs, so its annoying that people are suggesting that we’re getting away with something,” said Ray Wilkeson, lobbyist for the Oregon Forest Industries Council.
“That’s misinformation on the issue.”
He said the industry is willing to pay more for forest firefighting and protection, but believes it should be a shared responsibility.
Under the funding format that’s being replaced, landowners paid 60 percent of the costs of fighting fires on private forests, while taxpayers covered 40 percent.
Earlier versions of the bill said private landowners and the public should pay “roughly equal” shares, but that language was deleted.
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.
“The Legislature should use sources of revenue that already exist for fire protection on private land,” she said.
She suggested lawmakers tap instead an existing harvest tax, which now pays for timber industry marketing.
Mari Anne Gest of Oregon Salmon Center said touted public benefits of private industrial forestland are overblown. She said those forests commonly have muddied streams and reports suggest populations of threatened species like spotted owls are declining on them.
“More and more locked gates are keeping the public out,” Gest said. “Is that a benefit?”
The state is responsible for protecting 15.8 million acres, and has turned to an insurance policy to help moderate those costs. The state is the only one to buy such a policy.
The insurance does not reimburse for the lost value of any timber, but pays for the costs of fighting fires.
The policy has paid off. From 1973 to 2003, the policy cost a total of $42.5 million but helped the state avoid paying $52 million in suppression costs, according to forestry department data.
While House Bill 2327 exposes taxpayers to additional costs, 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.
“We’re hedging our bets with the initial attack money,” Morgan said.
In March, taxpayers paid $1.35 million for this summer’s policy.
That’s cheaper than the previous one. The difference: Officials agreed that the state will pay a higher deductible $25 million instead of $15 million before coverage kicks in.
In the 2003 session, Morgan and other rural lawmakers successfully inserted a provision into the budget to stop the Oregon Forest Land Protection Fund from buying the insurance policy, starting this year.
That maneuver helped launch the talks to change the formula for the first time in 15 years, and an industry-oriented task force proposed the legislation.
If lawmakers don’t pass some kind of bill to reverse the 2003 prohibition, then the only option for purchasing the insurance will be entirely from the general fund. And House Bill 2327 is the only proposal with any political traction.
“If this bill does not pass it will increase costs to the state,” Burley said.
If the legislation passes, the board that oversees the forest protection fund has agreed to reimburse the state for half of the cost of the insurance policy.
Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, said it’s in all Oregonians’ interest to combat and prevent fires, no matter where they are burning.
“Fires rarely respect property lines and a forest fire is a threat to all adjacent lands,” he said. “The emergency is not defined by who owns the fire, but by the fire itself.”