Author Topic: County payments to plunge more than 80%  (Read 1071 times)

Description: Published: Friday, January 16, 2015

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County payments to plunge more than 80%
« on: January 30, 2015, 07:38:10 AM »
FOREST SERVICE: County payments to plunge more than 80%

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

Published: Friday, January 16, 2015

Counties across the West should brace for a drastic cut in federal payments used for schools, roads and forestry work after Congress failed to extend Secure Rural Schools, the Forest Service announced last night.

The Forest Service said $50 million will be paid this year to 41 states and Puerto Rico to support local schools and roads, compared to roughly $300 million that was available last year under SRS.

It's the first time Congress has failed to reauthorize the program since its inception in 2000.

SRS, which was authored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and former Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), has been a financial lifeline for forested counties that were hammered by the loss of timber sales and logging and milling jobs beginning in the late 1980s. Last year, SRS handed out $270 million to more than 700 counties, according to the National Association of Counties.

But when Congress failed to extend the program during last month's lame-duck session, it meant counties must revert to a century-old law that entitles them to 25 percent of revenues from national forests -- a pittance compared to SRS.

Most of the 25 percent revenue comes from logging, which has dropped from a high mark of 12.7 billion board feet sold in 1987 to about 2.6 billion board feet sold in 2013.

In addition to the drop in funding, counties will not be able to use the $50 million on SRS programs for conservation work on national forests, wildfire protection or emergency services, the Forest Service said.

The hardest-hit state appears to be Oregon, whose Forest Service payments drop from $68 million in 2014 to $6 million in 2015. California's payments fall from $36 million to $9 million, Idaho's from $28 million to $2 million, and Washington's $22 million to $2 million.

Who is to blame depends on whom in Congress you ask.

"This drop unfortunately shows the fallout from House Republicans' puzzling decision at the end of 2014 to reject my efforts to fund and pass Secure Rural Schools payments for one more year," Wyden said in an emailed statement. "These payments are an essential lifeline for rural Oregonians who need to fund their roads and law enforcement as well as their schools."

Oregon counties last year received a total of more than $100 million from SRS when counting payments for Bureau of Land Management forests in western Oregon. It was not immediately clear how BLM's school-and-roads payments will fall.

Wyden said House Republicans blocked his proposal to extend SRS during the lame duck, paid for through sales of crude from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said that he supported an extension but that Wyden's pay-for did not pencil out. Wyden said Republicans were unwilling to consider an easy fiscal fix.

Walden could not be reached for comment this morning.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) blamed the Forest Service for failing to harvest enough trees to support local communities.

"The SRS program was originally set up by Washington bureaucrats to mask the loss of economic activity in our forested communities caused by declining timber harvests," Murkowski said in a statement. "It's clear that the Forest Service can no longer count on those payments to cover its refusal to cut timber."

Forest Service payments to Alaska will fall from $14 million to about a half-million dollars, a decline that will be felt hardest in southeast Alaska, where Murkowski was born.

The funding drop foreshadows a major battle over forestry policy in the 114th Congress.

Republicans hope to phase out SRS in favor of a logging renaissance that would boost local revenues while generating local logging, trucking and milling jobs.

"We must return to a policy that allows for sustainable timber harvests and gets our forested communities back to work," Murkowski said. "The alternative is to allow Alaska to manage its national forested lands."

But the Obama administration proposed a five-year reauthorization for SRS in its 2015 budget request. Environmental groups would also like to see it extended, fearing that a return to timber-harvest payments would stack the political deck against forest conservation.

The National Association of Counties, which last Congress endorsed a bill by then-House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) to double logging levels on national forests and enact a "modern revenue sharing program," said SRS should be reauthorized immediately.

"Without swift reauthorization, counties could face devastating shortfalls in funding for schools, roads and many other critical services," said NACo spokesman Brian Namey. "There is no time for delay."

Without SRS, Skamania County, Wash., has warned it plans to lay off dozens of employees, including those serving as its commissioners, sheriff and public defender; in its courts; and in other critical posts. Its $10 million budget will be lopped by 15 percent, county officials said (E&E Daily, Jan. 8 ).