The past election season produced a flurry of politicos promising to pay attention to the needs of the hard-pressed rural communities of the West. Now that the voting’s over, here’s an opportunity to make good on that promise: Reauthorize county payments.

There’s no doubt about it, county payments legislation is back in play — at least as a talking point.

Note that Oregon’s governor-elect — known above all else for his environmental passions — said he’ll make a pitch for county payments when he visits Washington, D.C. late this month. We urge John Kitzhaber to continue to wave that flag for his rural constituents once he’s in office.

Granted, it will take more than a request from one Western governor-elect to make the case for county payments. In other parts of the nation, the issue is greeted with considerable misunderstanding. Critics — some, oddly, from pork-barrel-laden states — see county payments as an entitlement or even a bailout. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden strenuously rejected that view in his visit last week to Eastern Oregon. He noted that the need for county payments arose out of a failed promise by the federal government to the forest counties.

In simple terms, the feds made a deal with the counties when the national forest system was created. In exchange for claiming vast tracts of forest lands for the people of the nation, the government agreed that the local communities would benefit from the resources. When the land was opened up to timber harvest, the local schools and roads were guaranteed a cut of the revenue. Then, over the past decade or so, environmental challenges shut down traditional logging on the federal forests, and the counties lost their mechanism for compensation.

Enter county payments legislation — a way for the feds to make good on their original obligation to the local forest communities. Wyden, who sponsored the first county payments bill, noted that the concept has always faced stiff opposition.

 “Bill Clinton didn’t want to sign it. George Bush didn’t want to sign it,” he said.

Eventually it passed, as did a scaled-down reauthorization, which is going into its final year. The reality is that any new proposal for 2012 will trigger an equally pitched battle. For the administration, as for many legislators, the sluggish economy continues to plague budget deliberations, and county payments could be an easy place to say “no.”

Wyden has pledged to fight for county payments again, and he recently urged the Office of Management and Budget to include reauthorization in President Obama’s 2012 budget.

In a carefully worded response on Oct. 28, acting director Jeffrey Zients wrote that the OMB is “committed to finding a long-term solution to economic growth for forest communities while protecting the health and beauty of our natural resources.” He said budgeters would evaluate options for helping the communities, but his letter also hinted that there could be a lot of shared pain ahead.

“We are also mindful of the significant challenges our country faces and appreciate your partnership as we make the tough choices necessary to restore fiscal discipline and building a foundation for economic growth, including in rural communities,” Zients wrote.

The question for rural residents is whether those “tough choices” will spell the end — again — of county payments. As the discussion continues in the halls of Washington, D.C., residents of Oregon’s forest counties find themselves with a big responsibility — to hold our leaders to their pre-election promises of support for rural communities. Pressing the case for county payments is a good place to start.

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