Property fee cut from controversial wildfire funding proposal, but big timber could still get break

The shift came two days after a story by the Capital Chronicle and hearings in the Legislature

By: - January 17, 2024 6:00 am

A controversial wildfire funding proposal has changed in recent days. It's sponsors will no longer ask all Oregon property owners to pay $10 a year to help offset fire protection costs on forest and ranch landowners. (Northwest Interagency Coordination Center)

A proposal that would charge each Oregon property owner $10 a year to offset rising fees that timber and ranch landowners pay to the state for fire protection has gone through major changes in recent days.

A Jan. 12 draft of the wildfire funding proposal, sponsored by Sen Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, and a workgroup she convened last fall, no longer includes the prospect of a $10 fee on Oregon’s 2 million property holders. Such a fee would have raised an estimated $20 million a year, about 15% of the projected total cost for wildfire protection in 2024. 

The shift came two days after reporting by the Capital Chronicle on the proposal and the first discussions of the plan by lawmakers during pre-session hearings. 

The draft proposal still includes cuts to the per-acre fees that timber and ranch landowners pay to the Oregon Department of Forestry for fire protection, potentially saving them up to $12 million per year. The proposal would create a new State Forestry Department Large Wildfire Fund, but does not include details about where money for that would come from, only that it would be appropriated by the Legislature.

A copy of the Jan. 12 draft legislative concept, an early version of a legislative bill, was obtained by the Capital Chronicle on Monday after Steiner’s office and Tess Seger, director of communications for the Oregon Senate Democrats, declined to provide a copy. 

“To avoid any confusion or misconceptions, we’re going to hold off on sharing the (legislative concept) until it is more finalized,” Seger said in an email. 

She declined to confirm whether the draft was the most recent version of Steiner’s proposal. Steiner will present her wildfire funding proposal to the Legislature during the upcoming short session that begins Feb. 5.

Seger did confirm the $10 fee is no longer part of Steiner’s proposal.

“In the past few days it became clear that there wasn’t going to be time during the 35-day session to pursue that aspect of the proposal,” Seger said in an email. 

The Capital Chronicle first reported generally about Steiner’s wildfire funding proposal Jan. 3, and on Jan. 10, it published an in-depth story on the plan, including the controversial makeup of the work group. Four of the 11 members are employed by industrial timber companies and an industry group. That industry group and one of the timber companies, Weyerhaeuser, donated to Steiner’s current campaign for state treasurer while the fire funding work group was meeting. 

Steiner had initially sought to create more sustainable wildfire funding streams for the Oregon Department of Forestry, and to cut the per-acre fees east Oregon ranch and small timber landowners pay. Some landowners have seen rates increase 40% following wildfire spending cuts from the Legislature in 2023. But the workgroup she convened appeared to be dominated by members employed by the timber industry. 

Critics of Steiner’s proposal had said charging industrial timber landowners less while asking all Oregon property owners to pay $10 more was regressive, and would shift wildfire protection costs from companies worth billions of dollars on to everyday Oregonians. 

“Removing the inequitable $10 fee is a step in the right direction, but that alone does not ‘save’ the work group’s proposal,” Jody Wiser, founder of the watchdog group Tax Fairness Oregon, said in an email. “It is a $12 million tax break for owners of timber and grazing land.”

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt is a reporter for Oregon Capital Chronicle. She has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.

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