Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Oregon Has Too Many Counties

Sure, but what does that have to do with public lands?

Actually, quite a bit. Counties in Oregon that excessively rely on federal timber dollars to fund basic services for their residents (timber-addicted counties or TACs) need to become more efficient at using the money they have. Counties with larger populations are more efficient than counties with smaller populations at delivering services to their residents. The TACs are mostly smaller counties. Combining counties is a way to make them more efficient so that in the case of TACs it becomes easier for them to wean themselves from their addiction to federal timber receipts.


The Problem Posed for Counties by Declining Timber Receipts

Historically—and still, for some counties that are still refusing to move on—most Oregon counties received a large amount of their annual budgets from their shares of federal timber receipts. In the 1980s, when clear-cutting of old-growth forests in Oregon amounted to more than three square miles (~1,920 American football fields) each week, it was quite a sweet deal for these counties.

By law, 25 percent of all timber revenues from the sale of national forest timber, sold by the Forest Service, goes to the county in which it was cut, to fund roads and schools.

By law, the eighteen counties encompassing the infamous revested Oregon and California (O&C) railroad lands proportionally share 75 percent of the gross timber receipts from the Bureau of Land Management’s 2.1 million acres in western Oregon.

In their own self-interest, O&C counties used to kick back one-third of what they received, or 25 percent of the total O&C timber receipts, to the BLM, so the BLM never ran short of money to put up more timber sales. This is no longer the case, as western Oregon BLM management costs are paid directly by Congress and the counties take their full 75 percent, except that they have chosen instead to take the temporary congressional alternative payment scheme that gives more money than today’s timber receipt share. Today, relatively few large and clear old-growth logs make it out of the federal forests, so timber receipts are but a mere shadow of what they once were.

County commissioners from timber-addicted counties (TACs) are generally lobbyists for clear-cutting federal public lands. During the height of the county funding crisis, Oregon governor John Kitzhaber convened representatives from the counties, the timber industry, and the environmental community. During the first meeting, the TACs and Big Timber pretended to have distinct interests, but in subsequent meetings they operated with not a sliver of daylight between them. At one point in the discussions, the TACs turned down a trust fund that would have perpetually secured a large amount of funding because it wasn’t favorable to the interests of Big Timber. Good for the counties’ taxpayers, but not for the counties timber barons.

The TACs  constantly whine about not having enough money and are repeatedly at the federal tit when they should, like all other counties, adequately tax themselves to fund local government services. The TACs, which are often smaller counties, also need to become more efficient using the money they do have.

The Efficiency Gains Made Possible by Combining Counties

There are presently thirty-six Oregon counties, ranging in population from 1,465 (Wheeler) to 790,670 (Multnomah), in land area from 435 (Multnomah) to 10,135 (Harney) square miles, and in population density from 0.7 (Harney) to 1,817.6 (Multnomah) people per square mile (see Table 1).


Counties are not to states as states are to these United States. States and the United States are all sovereign governments. Counties are mere administrative subdivisions of the sovereign state and exist for the convenience of and at the pleasure of the state. Nor do counties have the enduring status of cities, which are incorporated and in Oregon range in populationfrom 2 (Greenhorn) in Grant and Baker counties to 627,395 (Portland) in Multnomah County. A municipal corporation can go bankrupt; a county cannot.

Counties exist as mechanisms to provide services to the state’s citizens. Counties with small populations are inefficient at delivering services to residents. The larger the county population, the more efficient is the delivery of county services. Counties with populations of 20,000 or less (there are nine in Oregon, at least five of which are timber-addicted) spend almost twice as much per capita as counties with populations greater than 250,000 (there are five in Oregon) to provide services to their residents (see Table 2). Fewer, more populous counties would result in more efficient use of tax dollars.


Combining Counties (and Cities) to Serve Twenty-First-Century Oregonians

Oregon counties were last adjusted more than a century ago, just before the end of World War I. (Here’s an interesting interactive mapof the evolution of Oregon counties.) Populations have grown, economies have changed, and roads have improved. Federal logging levels aren’t likely to ever go back to what they were, and it’s time for Oregon’s downstate counties to become more efficient and end their addiction to federal timber receipts. When counties adequately tax their own voters, rather than thinking they again can rely on massive clear-cutting of the federal forests, they will want to become more efficient.

Those efficiency gains can be delivered if the Oregon Legislature shrinks the number of Oregon counties to best serve the interests of twenty-first-century Oregonians.

One final note. Lest one think I’m just picking on rural counties—while they’re at it, the legislature should also encourage the consolidation of adjacent cities, including Coos Bay and North Bend; Burns and Hines; Gresham, Wood Village, and Troutdale; Oregon City, Gladstone, and West Linn; Portland and Milwaukie; King City and Tigard; and Eugene and Springfield (which already share a fire department). Consider Durham, with a population of 1,880, an area of 0.41 square miles, and a density the equivalent of 4,100 people per square mile. The city is surrounded by Tigard (49,140), Tualatin (26,925), and Lake Oswego (37,105); gets its water from the Tigard Water District; contracts for police services from Tualatin; and disposes of its sewage through a regional consortium. Wouldn’t it just make sense for Durham to be part absorbed into a nearby, real, city?