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Published in Print: February 28, 2007, as Rural Districts Fear Loss of Timber Revenue

Rural Districts Fear Loss of Timber Revenue

Federal program aiding schools, other services faces reauthorization.

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Education officials in 41 states and Puerto Rico warn that they could be forced to close schools, lay off teachers, or make cuts in a wide variety of areas in the coming months if Congress doesn’t renew a century-old program that reimburses county governments for federal forest land within their borders.

“This is an economic, social, and public-safety crisis if these funds are not reauthorized,” Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat and a sponsor of legislation that would extend the law until 2013, said on the House floor last month.

Since 1908, the federal government has given a portion of timber revenues from national forests to the counties that are home to the 192 million acres of land—payments that rural communities depend on to support schools, roads, law enforcement, libraries, preservation efforts, and other county projects.

That source began to dissipate in the early 1990s, however, because of federal environmental regulations that restricted logging. Nationally, timber revenues declined by nearly 70 percent during that decade, prompting Congress to stabilize the “county payments,” as they are called, through the six-year Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000.

Schools and Timber Revenue

In response to declining timber revenues since the 1980s, Congress enacted the six-year Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act in 2000. The last payments were given out in December, but two bills being debated on Capitol Hill would extend the act until 2013.

• The law affects more than 700 eligible counties in 41 states and Puerto Rico and 4,400 rural schools.

• Funds must be used to support schools, roads, law enforcement, libraries, preservation efforts, and other county projects.

• The U.S. Department of Agriculture handed out nearly $417 million in funds during fiscal 2006, of which more than $385 million was earmarked for the provision that includes schools. More than $2 billion has been distributed since 2001.

• Counties containing National Forest System lands receive annual payments equal to 25 percent of revenues from that land—based on the average of the three highest revenue years between 1986 and 1999.

• Counties containing Oregon and California Railroad grant lands and Coos Bay Wagon Road grant lands receive annual payments equal to 50 percent of revenues from that land—based on the average of the three highest revenue years between 1986 and 1999.

• Counties in Oregon, Washington, and northern California in which federal timber sales had been restricted or prohibited in order to protect the Northern spotted owl receive alternative annual “safety net” payments.

Under that law, which expired in September, counties containing National Forest System land received annual payments equal to 25 percent of revenues from the land, based on the average of the three highest revenue years between 1986 and 1999. Western counties with railroad-grant lands dating back to the early 20th century, as well as counties in Oregon, Washington, and Northern California that had been affected by efforts to protect the northern spotted owl, also received money under the program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the parent agency of the National Forest Service, distributed nearly $417 million in payments to counties during fiscal 2006, of which more than $385 million was earmarked for the provision in the law that includes 4,400 rural school districts. More than $2 billion has been distributed since 2001.

But with counties having received their last checks in December and no renewal of the program in sight, school administrators are growing desperate.

“Frankly, if we cannot get that commitment [for an extension of the program] now, local governments will start sending out pink slips to between 12,000 and 16,000 teachers and county employees as early as March 15,” said Bob Douglas, the president of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition and the superintendent of schools for Tehama County, Calif. “In our most rural counties, these layoffs will have a devastating effect on the quality of our schools and the level of county services.”

Tehama County, which has an enrollment totaling 11,000 students in its 18 school districts, received more than $2.7 million in county payments under the federal program last year for local services, including schools, roads, and libraries. Of that, $1.2 million went to public schools.

Districts Concerned

According to Mr. Douglas, the expiration of the 2000 law is affecting more than 9 million K-12 students nationwide and could force some districts into bankruptcy. In addition, rural counties say they may have to cut back on road maintenance, law enforcement, search-and-rescue operations, and other services that residents consider vital to their communities.

Efforts to renew the law are being spearheaded by a bipartisan coalition of federal lawmakers from Oregon, who have said that reauthorizing the county-payments act is their No. 1 priority this session of Congress. Oregon historically has received the bulk of payments under the program, $149 million in 2006. More than half its land is federally owned forest land.

The program would be authorized to receive funding for an additional seven years under identical bills proposed last month in the House—by Rep. DeFazio, the Oregon Democrat, and Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican from the state—and in the upper chamber, by Oregon Sens. Gordon Smith, a Republican, and Ron Wyden, a Democrat. A hearing on the Senate bill is scheduled for this week by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, which is led by Sen. Wyden.

In the meantime, the lawmakers have been pulling out all the stops to have a one-year extension tacked on to other bills. Sen. Smith presented a three-hour appeal—which included the lyrics to the Johnny Cash song “Lumberjack”—on the Senate floor earlier this month, in a failed effort to persuade his colleagues to add a $400 million extension of the program to the federal budget bill for fiscal 2007. Rep. Walden has delivered a series of 18 one-minute speeches to fellow lawmakers, one for each of the affected counties in his district.

The Bush administration also has proposed a way to secure funding for the program, at least for the next five years. In his fiscal 2008 budget, President Bush proposes selling parcels of federal forest land, totaling 200,000 to 309,000 acres, that the Forest Service identifies as “small, isolated, or difficult to manage due to their location or other characteristics.”

The president’s proposal would generate $800 million over the next five years, the administration estimates.

But lawmakers from Oregon and other affected areas have little faith in the plan.

“Congress soundly rejected the White House land sell-off idea last year on a bipartisan basis,” Sen. Wyden said in a press release Feb. 5. “To now come back with a recycled land-sale proposal and offer no real funding for these hurting counties is beyond cynical.”

Vol. 26, Issue 25, Pages 23,25

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