Rural counties lose timber supplement
In December, the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000 (SRS) expired, leaving nearly 800 counties with much less money for schools. Unless Congress reinstates the SRS, the timber industry-dependent counties could lose nearly $400 million annually that supports 4,400 rural schools. “If this money goes, there will be a world of hurt,” says Paul Beddoe, associate legislative director for the Washington-based National Association of Counties (NACo).
In the early 1900s, the creation of the National Forest System set aside 153 million acres of forestlands in the West for conservation and sustained multiple-use management. Three years later, Congress created a revenue-sharing mechanism with the affected counties that gave them 25 percent of the revenues generated from the lands, most of which had been used for timber harvesting. The counties were required to use the money primarily for education and public road maintenance.
However, in the 1970s and 1980s, environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, curtailed timber harvesting. Most counties experienced an 85 percent decline in revenues from the federal supplements, putting school districts across the West in serious financial trouble. The SRS provided transitional assistance to the affected communities by providing 25 percent of historic timber revenues annually from the peak three years of operation between 1986 and 1999.
SRS-dependent communities, most of which are in the Northwest, do not have the tax base to replace the federal supplement, Beddoe says. In Lemhi County, Idaho, the decline in the timber and mineral industries has significantly reduced the number of working-class families and school enrollment, says County Commissioner Robert Cope. Because state education funding is based on enrollment numbers, Cope says the county’s share will be lowered while costs remain the same. Some nearby counties in similar situations have implemented measures to cut overhead, such as moving to four-day school weeks.
Many officials in the SRS-dependent communities would like to see an increase in allowable timber harvesting levels in the national forests to generate more revenue. “[Environmentalist groups] outside the area consider any commercial act of the federal government as wrong,” Cope says. “Our economy is based on the foresting of timber.”
However, some environmentalists view the situation differently. “It is one thing for county commissioners to say they need money for their schools, but another story entirely for them to pressure the forest service to log at an unsustainable rate, which is what they were doing for years,” says Sean Cosgrove, national forest policy specialist with the San Francisco-based Sierra Club. The Sierra Club supports current legislation that would reinstate the SRS Act, particularly because it includes the Payment-In-Lieu-of-Taxes (PILT) program. The PILT program provides payments to counties based on the percentage of federal land within their jurisdictions rather than logging receipts, a formula the club considers more equitable.
On March 28, the Senate voted 74 to 23 to reauthorize SRS through 2012 as an amendment to the fiscal year 2007 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Bill. However, President Bush vetoed the bill because it includes a deadline for troop pullout in Iraq. NACo leaders hope the funding will be included in the next appropriations bill. The Bush administration’s FY2007 budget includes a legislative proposal to augment funding by selling off select parcels of federal lands, but legislators and environmental groups have been unreceptive to that plan.
Nevertheless, the strong vote in the Senate has given SRS supporters hope. “We do appreciate what the Senate has done,” Cope says. “They understand the plight in the Western counties.”
Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.