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Oregon School Districts' Fiscal Future Tied to Fate of Northern Spotted Owl

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By Michael Newman

The fate of the northern spotted owl may well determine the financial future of half of Oregon's public-school districts, educators in that state say.

Environmentalists are pressing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the bird, whose numbers are declining in the wild, a "threatened" or "endangered" species. Either designation would lead to increased pressure to declare the "old growth" forests in which the bird lives off-limits for logging.

Already last month, a panel of federal scientists recommended that the owl be protected by restricting logging operations on about 4 million acres of federal lands in Oregon, Washington, and northern California. Approximately 800,000 of those acres are in Oregon.

Many school districts in the state, however, depend on tax revenue from timber sales to help meet costs. Thus, the current debate over the owl's status has implications for the schools, according to local and state officials.

If the species is declared threatened or endangered, "there could be some districts that would lose money," said Jane Coulton, assistant superintendent for public instruction in Oregon. She said about half the state's 300 districts could be affected.

The wildlife service is scheduled to resolve the spotted owl's status by June 23.

Some school officials, meanwhile, are concerned that the proposed reduction in logging activity would lead to reduced tax revenue.

"We could lose about $200,000 or $250,000," said Jay L. Johnson, superintendent of the Gold Beach Union High School District on the southern Oregon coast. The total budget for the schools in Gold Beach is $2 million, he said.

Statewide, the impact of the owl's fate on the schools is less clear. Ms. Coulter said "we just don't have a clue at this point" how much revenue schools would lose.

The legislative revenue bureau is currently evaluating the economic effects of declaring the spotted owl endangered, Ms. Coulter added.

'Devastating' Effect?

In Oregon, counties receive tax revenue from sales of timber harvested from U.S. Forest Service land and what is called "O & C" land--tracts that were acquired long ago by the federal government for the Oregon and California Railroad, which was never built. They also levy taxes on timber from county-owned property.

According to the forest service, Oregon counties received about $274 million in revenues from federally owned forests last year. At least $40 million of that money went to the schools, a spokesman said.

Studies of how much revenue will be lost if the spotted owl is declared threatened or endangered vary widely in their findings. Some estimate losses of as little as 20 percent, while others foresee a 60 percent drop.

According to one forest-service study, revenues will fall slightly even if the owl is not declared endangered.

But Ken Galloway, the forester for Hood River County, east of Portland, said schools stand to lose more than revenue from timber sales.

"This has an effect on schools in the near term and the long term," he said. Schools and counties may lose tax revenue initially from decreased logging activity, he said, but it is the overall impact of reduced logging activity that will be "devastating" to the local economy.

"It's the ripple effect," he said. "Even if mills don't shut down,8they'll have fewer shifts, and then you have a population that is going to have to move to find another job."

Both local officials and lobbyists for national environmental groups said they thought the dispute over the spotted owl could be solved amicably.

The National Audubon Society, said Brock Evans, vice president for national issues, supports federal and state efforts "to help these local economies diversify." The government should also provide economic assistance to older mills that are retooling to cut "new growth" forests, he said.

Students, for their part, "are supportive of both the owl and logging," Mr. Johnson said. "This has become such a political situation--either the owl or lumber--but the owl can still be protected and we can have other areas for harvesting," he added.

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