Published On: Mon, Feb 25th, 2013

Public Safety Crisis – Before the Hatchet Fell

Story last updated on February 28th, 2013 at 9:13 pm.

For several years, public officials have been making a point to communicate to the public the severity of Lane County’s public safety crisis. According to county officials, the public safety situation is only going to be more dire should the voters of Lane County choose not to approve a proposed levy which would ensure the maintenance of 255 beds at the Lane County Jail, and 36 at the John Serbu Youth Campus and Juvenile Justice Center. This levy, if passed, will keep the beds operational for a period of five years.

Lane County Jail
Photo : Scott Reynolds

In this first installment of a Lane Today series about public safety in Lane County, we will explore some of the origins leading to the county’s current financial predicament.

Way back in 1891, President William Harrison signed the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 after it was passed by Congress. This law allowed the President to set aside forest reserves from the land in the public domain. Harrison put 13 million acres of land in to the national forests. His predecessor, President Grover Cleveland, added 25 million acres by 1897. During this time, elected officials, school superintendents and many citizens were concerned the removal of these large tracts of land would stifle settlement, taxation and economic development in these areas.

Congress specified in 1897 that the forest reserves would be used for three specific purposes. These are to improve and protect the forests, secure favorable conditions for water flows and to provide an adequate supply of timber for the use and needs of the people of the United States.

In 1897, a gathering of over 30,000 citizens occurred in Rapid City, SD to protest the government’s establishment of the Black Hills Forest Reserve due to concerns it would cripple the economy of the area.

The forest reserves, in 1905, were renamed the U.S. National Forests. The U.S. Forest Service was founded the same year to manage the lands that had been set aside. Lands continued to be set aside, and concerns of citizens, leaders and elected officials continued to fester, and by the mid-1900s, over 153 million acres had been designated as national forests.

Gifford Pinchot

Gifford Pinchot, Chief of the Forest Service and namesake of a national forest in Southern Washington, and President Theodore Roosevelt grew concerned about the possibility rural opposition could compromise the future of the national forests.

Pinchot and Roosevelt proposed a bill approved by Congress that would have dedicated 10 percent of the revenue generated from the forest lands to counties to use for roads and schools. Officials of the affected counties turned down this deal, and in 1908, Congress came back to the table with a better deal, this time offering 25 percent. This revenue sharing act was approved in 1908, and has provided funds to counties to fund county budgets and school districts.

“The Compact”

It is important for County Commissioners and School Leaders to remember that these funds are to mitigate for the removal of these lands from economic development and settlement – in order to form our National Forest system. This was a compact with the rural citizens of America to make possible the establishment of our National Forests.

Concentrating on a local level, in 1916, the federal government reclaimed an additional 2.8 million acres in Oregon known as the O&C lands. These lands, which originally had been designated for a railroad, are now managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The federal government originally granted these lands to the Oregon and California Railroad Company in the 1860s as a means to encourage economic development in the recently established states. The government took the lands back after the railroad did not sell the lands to settlers as previously agreed upon.

Photo: Bureau of Land Management

The federal government began to actively manage the O&C lands after the O&C Lands Act was passed in 1937. This gave the Department of the Interior authority to manage these lands, and also the Coos Bay Wagon Roads lands. The timber lands were directed to be managed as follows, according to the act:

…for permanent forest production, and the timber thereon shall be sold, cut, and removed in conformity with the principal of sustained yield for the purpose of providing a permanent source of timber supply, protecting watersheds, regulating stream flow, and contributing to the economic stability of local communities and industries, and providing recreational facilities . . .(43 U.S.C. §1181a)

No provisions for reforesting the land existed prior to the O&C Lands Act being passed. The act required harvested areas to be reforested, with the idea that a future source of timber be provided to contribute to the economic stability of the communities in and near the lands.

The act also requires 50% of revenue generated from management of the lands be returned to the 18 counties containing the O&C lands. Revenues are split annually by the percentage of assessed values of the lands in each county as they were in 1915.

This arrangement worked out well for Lane County for many decades, but this all began to change in the 1980s. Watch for the second part of Lane Today’s series on the state of public safety in Lane County, as we explore changes that have led to the progressive decline in funding for public safety and other vital services in Lane County.

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