Bush proposes land sale to fund schools
The passage of the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Act (SRS) in 2000 was a welcome relief to cash-strapped rural communities struggling through years of reduced timber sales. The SRS temporarily appropriated federal funds to counties to offset plunging sales and tax revenue resulting from logging restrictions on federal lands within their borders. Six years and more than $2.5 billion later, the law is up for extension and at the center of a growing debate.
The Bush administration proposed a five-year extension of the SRS — due to expire in September — to give counties more time to adjust to the revenue loss before payments are completely phased out. Allocating 50 percent of the needed funding, the administration proposed to sell 300,000 acres — or one-tenth — of the U.S. Forest Service’s 192 million acres to generate the remaining $800 million for distribution among 780 counties in 35 states.
Plan opponents argue that any gains for the counties are offset by the permanent loss of irreplaceable land and could set a bad precedent for maintaining funding streams in the future. But U.S. Forest officials say that only 200,000 acres — described as small and inaccessible — would have to be sold and would result in “no net loss” when balanced by planned Forest Legacy and other land acquisition programs. “These are not crown jewels we are talking about,” said Agriculture Undersecretary and Director of Forest Policy Mark Rey in an April teleconference. “This is a reasonable proposal to take a small fraction of a percentage of national land, which is the least necessary, and use it for those in need.”
Grateful that rural schools are a national priority, counties generally support the sale of public land as long as it does not conflict with local wishes. “The counties’ anxiety is that although this is a national program, the effects are felt locally,” says Paul Beddoe, associate legislative director for the Washington-based National Association of Counties. “Although we don’t oppose the sale of public lands, the devil is in the details.”
Those details are very important to counties like Plumas County, Calif., which saw its annual revenue drop from $9 million to $700,000 annually before the SRS passed. Bill Dennison, supervisor for the county, which has more than 12,000 acres proposed for auction, thinks critics need to examine the situation more carefully. “As a matter of fact, over 100,000 acres of new federal lands have been purchased from private landowners over the past three to five years, so we’re actually adding more than we’re selling,” he says.
If Congress fails to find an acceptable funding proposal, rural schools, roads and other county services could face program cuts, employment layoffs and maintenance delays. Even if the proposal is accepted, there is a risk that the land will not sell, leaving counties with only half the money and a serious financial situation. “Rural counties are relying on SRS funding, so if this proposal doesn’t work, then Congress needs to come up with something else because the clock is ticking,” Beddoe says.
On March 30, Montana Sen. Max Baucus and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden introduced an alternative proposal that would fund the SRS without selling public lands. Received well by other members of Congress, the bill proposes to raise $2.6 billion over the next 10 years by closing a tax loophole that allows some government contractors to avoid their tax obligations.
Lori Burkhammer is a Washington-based freelancer.