Bookish Oregon's got a big library problem with roots in timber money

Federal funding to mitigate the economic effects of spotted-owl protection has expired. The congressional delegation is rallying, and so are rural voters.
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The campaign to save the libraries of Jackson County, Ore., has attracted national media attention. (Save Our Library System-YES! and CBS)

Federal funding to mitigate the economic effects of spotted-owl protection has expired. The congressional delegation is rallying, and so are rural voters.

Oregon communities turn up often on those lists of Top 10 Cool Places to Live. To hear outsiders tell it, Bend is Sun City without the boredom; Astoria's becoming Hamptons-West without the preppy deck shoes; and Portland beckons those who live to cycle and recycle. Such positive press is good; it distracts attention from another sort of list. The one that would out Oregon as home to "Shortest School Year Since the Pilgrims Landed," or "Largest Library Closure in US History." Not that these news items are secrets. Remember Doonesbury lampooning Portland schools? And just last week the shutdown of 15 libraries in Oregon's Jackson County (Medford is the big town there) got national play. Along with strong ongoing coverage by the Medford Mail Tribune, the statewide press reported, CBS rolled tape, the San Francisco Chronicle put it on A-1, and some highly lucid bloggers mourned for their stacks. All the reports make it clear that this mess is not really the fault of Oregonians, many of whom have been quoted as being quite firmly in favor of, well, reading. The library shuttering results from something called the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Self Determination Act getting flushed at the federal level. Like any measure identified by seven words followed by "Act" and involving billions of tax dollars, it's a bit complicated. In a nutshell: For 100 years, states got back some of the money made from logging on federal land. The act came about in 2000, approved for 39 states, all of which felt the squeeze from reduced logging that followed spotted-owl protection and other federally driven changes. Oregon received the biggest chunk until the act ran out, as scheduled, last September. Now 33 Oregon counties are scrambling to cover services, from police patrols to reference books. Some $7 million evaporated from the Jackson County libraries, 80 percent of the system budget. Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden, along with Republican Sen. Gordon Smith and a cadre of other effective Western lawmakers, stepped up with a $5 billion emergency measure (more than half for Oregon) that would restore the funds for libraries and other needs through 2011 – tied to a supplemental appropriations bill for the Iraq war – only to hear President Bush declare he'd veto it because it also sets a schedule for withdrawing troops. (Oregon Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio and Republican Greg Walden pushed companion legislation in the House.) Reporters from several smaller papers in the state listened to Wyden on a conference call last week, as the senator spoke confidently about resurrecting the emergency appropriations bill. The Curry County Reporter quoted Wyden as saying: The President may veto the bill more than once, but eventually the legislation must pass to secure additional dollars for the troops. But I must say, we are very well positioned. We have gotten tremendous bipartisan support. There is another, smaller life preserver out there. Jackson County voters – who by the way checked out 1.4 million books and other items from their libraries last year – failed to pass a library levy in November. But right about now, ballots are arriving in Jackson County mailboxes for another try, a $8.3 million levy that would keep the libraries running, adding 66 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. Will it pass on May 15? Maybe. There doesn't seem to be organized opposition. But Joe Davis, chairman of the Save Our Library System-Yes! political action committee says recent polling showed supporters and opponents neck-in-neck. "People really love their libraries here, but I think in times of uncertainty, people are reticent to approve new taxes," he said in a telephone interview. SOLS-Yes! volunteers are doorbelling and drumming up support at civic clubs and other public events. Some enterprising locals even approached Powell's, Portland's beloved bookstore, about setting up shop in a library branch to keep people in the habit of seeking out reading materials. (That independent bookseller has its hands full with six stores and e-commerce, but the Jackson County folks deserve points for thinking outside the box.) Wyden is, thankfully, standing tough, but it's understandable that some concerned library supporters won't sleep well until these ballots are counted and they know that a majority of their neighbors vote, and vote yes, to paying for the libraries. They're afraid that the next big news out of Jackson County will be about the largest used-book sale in U.S. history.


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