Union Democrat staff

Rural counties will continue to receive federal timber payments for at least one more year after President Obama signed a one-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools program into law Friday.

The reauthorization of the timber payments were part of a larger bill, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, known as MAP 21. The extension authorizes $346 million for payments to heavily forested counties nationwide, a 5 percent decrease from the previous year.

The Secure Rural Schools program was created in 2000 as a way to compensate rural counties whose revenues were drastically reduced by federal policies that severely limited the amount of logging allowed on federal land. The last version of legislation authorizing the payments, which dropped by 10 percent each year, expired in September. Many counties were forced to set their budget for fiscal year 2013 without knowing whether the timber payments would continue.

In fiscal year 2011, the last year figures are available, Tuolumne County received $1.4 million, based on its management of 612,489 acres of Stanislaus National Forest. Calaveras County, which contains 80,297 acres of Stanislaus National Forest, received more than $204,000 in 2011, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The Secure Rural Schools program was initially conceived as a stopgap while timber-richcommunities retooled their economies away from being logging dependent. Its supporters contend that Congress has an obligation to honor a commitment the federal government made more than a century ago when it assumed ownership of vast amounts of public lands, closing them to private development.

However, the 112th Congress is particularly cost-conscious. While a five-year extension of the program had widespread bi-partisan support in the Senate, particularly among Western lawmakers, the chamber balked at the $1.5 billion price tag.

The short-term compromise of a one-year extension was ultimately approved by the conference committee that worked to reconcile the Senate and House of Representatives' rival versions of a larger transportation bill.