Species Act Hits Schools' Forest Income

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In Western communities where woodlands dominate the landscape, schools are compelled to see the forests for the trees, and the logging revenues they generate. But federal environmental laws are stirring budget tensions and forcing local educators to enter the fray over when and how to limit the harvesting of trees on federal land.

Dozens of counties in California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington state have been sliding into an economic rut since environmental rules adopted nearly a decade ago placed major restrictions on logging. The rules are intended to preserve the natural habitats of the northern spotted owl and other birds, animals, and plants protected under the Endangered Species Act.

More recently, even Eastern states, from Pennsylvania to Georgia and Florida, have felt the impact.

School leaders from affected counties have now joined a long-running battle over forest regulation in which lawmakers, environmental groups, and the timber industry are at odds.

Nearly 100 school and local government officials met in Reno, Nev., last month to map out a long-term strategy for addressing the issue. Dozens have made monthly jaunts to Washington to advocate a balance between preservation and managed production that they say is needed to sustain their communities.

"The environment-and-timber issue has become very emotional," said Superintendent James W. Parsons of the Alpine County, Calif., schools.

Mr. Parsons' tiny northern California district, with some 200 students in grades K-12, has seen nearly a quarter of what was once its $1.6 million annual budget evaporate in the past five years or so. To survive, it has eliminated athletics and several clerical and teaching positions and cut spending on school nurses, curriculum support, transportation, and maintenance.

Environmentalists "see it in very simplistic terms--that these big timber companies want to get rich fast by clear-cutting the forest," Mr. Parsons said. "I live in the forest, so I don't want to see it decimated," he said, but he sees an essential role for the timber industry in forest management.

History of Dependence

Communities, and their schools, have long depended on the money earned from logging.

Under the 1908 federal law that created the national-forest system, some 25 percent of federal timber receipts is turned over to affected counties to pay for schools and roads and compensate for lost tax revenues that the public land could potentially generate. For years, the program was a boon for rural communities, often pumping hundreds of millions of additional dollars into local coffers. School districts have been able to supplement student health services, library and media resources, and curriculum support with the extra money.

But the environmental movement of recent decades--fueled by reports of abuses in the industry such as the clear-cutting of thousands of acres of forest and the destruction of natural habitats--has succeeded in gaining strict limits on the industry.

Environmentalists want to see logging activities diminish even further, according to Melanie Griffin, the director of land-protection programs in the Washington, D.C., office of the Sierra Club. Tourism, recreation, and restoration projects could replace many of the lost jobs, she argued.

The federal logging program "puts pressure on counties to cut more than perhaps ought to be cut," she said. "The cutting cannot go on forever. It would make sense to look to a future when economies are not dependent on the timber industry."

A decade ago, some 12 million board-feet of timber was harvested from national forests, according to Chris Wood, an assistant to National Forest Service Chief Michael P. Dombeck. Last year, only about 3.5 million board-feet was cut. Payments to schools have plummeted from some $1 billion in 1987 to less than $500 million last year.

A proposal to place an 18-month moratorium on the use of federal tax money to build logging roads--decried as "corporate welfare" by critics in Congress--could slow production even more.

Some counties have gained relief through the 1993 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, which pays a declining percentage of counties' previous timber revenues for 10 years. But some areas with shrinking revenues do not qualify for the money, which goes only to counties affected by the Endangered Species Act.

In Alpine County, for instance, federal forestry officials decided to restrict timber harvesting to protect the habitat of the California spotted owl, not the northern species that falls under the endangered-species law.

Last fall, Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., proposed legislation that would reimburse all counties affected by changes in the federal logging program. But the proposal's high price tag--at least $150 million a year and perhaps much more--has dimmed the legislation's prospects, at least this year. Mr. Fazio has asked the General Accounting Office to study the matter and provide cost estimates for the plan. The GAO report is due out this summer.

More Than Money

The Clinton administration has offered its own plan to reduce county governments' dependence on timber sales. President Clinton's fiscal 1999 budget proposal includes some $200 million for "decoupling" counties from the logging program.

"The central question we're asking is, does it make sense that the richest country in the world should be funding public education on the back of a federal timber program?" Mr. Wood of the National Forest Service said. "The president's budget ... takes an approach that provides counties with a stable, nonfluctuating source of payment for schools."

But the ties to the timber industry go beyond money, said Marvin E. Locke, the superintendent of schools in Tehama County, Calif. The county, which occupies a swath of the northern Sacramento Valley larger than the state of Rhode Island, is home to three national forests. The most popular, Lassen National Forest, has drawn thousands of visitors from around the world to view its main attraction, an active volcano that last erupted eight decades ago.

During the 1980s, timber harvesting on federal land pumped $2.25 million a year into the 11,000-student district. This year, the schools received little more than $500,000.

But the money is not the only thing that has dwindled. The county--once the home to nearly a dozen sawmills, and the hundreds of jobs they provided--watched its last timber company pack up and head overseas two years ago. Students in the district are now more likely to have a parent out of work or in a low-paying job, a situation that has created a greater need for more school services, Mr. Locke said.

Natural forces have presented their own danger to the communities, officials say. Thousands of acres of dead and dying trees that have fallen victim to drought, insects, and disease lie idle, threatening healthy trees and leaving them vulnerable to the devastating fires that have plagued the forests during the dry season.

"Twice I have had to stand between my home and a forest fire," said Mr. Parsons, the Alpine County superintendent. "We need the timber industry to help manage our forest."

Industry representatives argue that preservation efforts have reached an extreme. The national-forest system was designed to sustain a balance of activities, they say. Under the 1908 law, two-thirds of the federal land is set aside for wilderness and other uses; the remaining acreage is for logging. In many places, recreation and tourism are not viable alternatives for replacing timber revenues because of the costly infrastructure necessary to support them and the lower profits they would generate, logging proponents contend.

"People are making choices based on an emotional argument that they don't want to see a tree cut," said Frank M. Gladics, the president of the Portland, Ore.-based Independent Forest Products Association, which represents small logging companies in 14 states. "We're not even harvesting the 6 billion board-feet [of timber] that's dying on an annual basis. That's a big hunk of money that isn't going to schools."

Vol. 17, Issue 35, Page 1

Published in Print: May 13, 1998, as Species Act Hits Schools' Forest Income
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Web Resources
  • For more information on the Endangered Species Act, go to the Endangered Species Home Page of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which includes the full text of the Act.
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