Many of you probably are familiar with the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Self-Determination Act, the federal law that gives rural communities in national forest areas money to compensate for revenue lost because of restrictions on harvesting timber in those regions.
The program was created in 2000 with the intention of it being a short-term solution. But rural communities nationwide have depended on those funds for public services since then, and the act is set to expire in September. Failure to reauthorize the program could bring an end to that money, and rural advocates warned that could trigger drastic cuts, such as teacher layoffs.
Politico wrote a story about the issue a couple of weeks ago, and it does a good job of explaining the complicated politics behind reauthorizing the legislation. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, is chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, and he recently held an oversight hearing on the act. He wants to see Congress do more than just reauthorize the existing law, and he released a statement saying:
The only long-term solution to ensure that communities and schools continue to receive adequate funding is to fundamentally and structurally change current forest management policies that will enable communities to ramp up timber harvest. ... In an effort to address the challenges many timber-dependent communities are currently facing, Congress must examine the policies currently hindering production and multiple use of our forest resources. Secure Rural Schools funds are essentially hush monies paid to communities in exchange for not being able to use their lands."
The act has been renewed in the past, and the Partnership for Rural America campaign was formed to advocate for a long-term, 10-year reauthorization. The partnership is an initiative of the National Forest Counties & Schools Coalition, which was formed in 1998.
Rural communities nationwide are watching these developments closely. The program has given out about $4.5 billion since its inception, and it currently funds more than 600 counties in 41 states.
An Oregon TV station, KVAL, reported that the program in 2000 gave one local county $44 million, but that has been cut to $15 million this year, resulting in reductions to county services such as sheriff’s deputy patrols and jail beds.
An editorial in the Daily Astorian, in Astoria, Ore., called the recent hearing a “pretty good primer on what got us into this predicament—and the dire need for much better solutions.” The editorial says although the funds have been a lifeline to forest counties in Oregon and across the West, reauthorizing the payments isn’t the whole answer.
We’ll keep you posted on any significant developments.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.