Congress should pass timber payments legislation

By Union Democrat staff July 30, 2010 06:27 am
    Tuolumne County Superintendent Joe Silva will in September repeat what has become a familiar pilgrimage: He will fly to Washington, D.C. to lobby for renewal of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which expires next year.
    Behind the act’s euphemistic, bureaucratic name is hard, cold cash.
       If extension of the act becomes part of the federal budget for the next decade, as backers hope, Tuolumne County will get $2 million a year and Calaveras County $280,000. And it’s not partisan, pork-barrel cash thrown like bones to constituents in return for some politician’s re-election.
    Instead, the $500 million annual pot would be split among nearly 800 rural counties having tax-exempt national forest land with their boundaries. Tuolumne County, with 611,395 acres of Stanislaus National Forest land (42 percent of its total acreage), is near the top of the list.
    The idea behind the act has been to compensate the affected counties for the taxes they don’t collect on millions of undevelopable acres of timberland and wilderness.
    Most of the cash is split between county schools and roads, with smaller amounts going to resource advisory committee for forest- and conservation-related projects. At stake, backers of the new bill say, are some $1.37 billion in lost annual business revenues and 11,000 lost jobs.
    SRSC has been around since 2000, but federal help for forest counties dates back more than a century. In 1908, Congress passed a law giving such counties a 25 percent slice of revenue from timber sales and other income-producing activities on national forests within their boundaries.
    For many decades the so-called Forest Reserve program was a reliable source of income for rural counties. But with the advent of stiffer environmental regulations and new U.S. Forest Service priorities, timber cuts plummeted and so did local revenues.
    The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act was passed as a replacement source of income. The trouble is, as Silva can attest, the legislation has not been reliable.
    Funding has never been guaranteed for more than a few years at a time, and pending expiration has typically triggered a stampede of school superintendents and road department administrators to Washington for frantic rounds of lobbying.
    Drama and uncertainty has been high, and success mixed. By now Joe Silva and other members of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition — a 1,600-member, 39-state advocacy group aimed at perpetuating funding — know that this common-sense measure is unlikely to get an up-or-down House or Senate vote on its merits.
    Instead, success or failure of SRSC has hinged on the fate of huge, multibillion-dollar spending bills it has been attached to. In past years it has been linked up with Iraq War spending (passed), energy spending (failed) and 2008’s $700 billion bailout bill (passed).
    This year, said Silva, the coalition wants to link the bill to the 2012 federal budget, with provisos that SRSC be good for 10 years and that funding stay 80 percent of its historic maximum (Tuolumne County’s $2.5 million high would translate to $2 million annually).
    Solid groundwork has already been laid: Twenty-nine senators and 59 members of the house, from both sides of the aisle, have urged inclusion. Also, a previous funding formula which favored Far Western states has been amended to give other forested states a larger slice of the pie.
    The moves have brought more backing from a broader base. “And, as rare as it is these days, any time there is bipartisan support, that’s a good thing,” said Silva.
    Not only that, he added, but the $500 million in SRSC fund “hardly amounts to the dust on the cover” of a gargantuan federal budget edging toward $4 trillion.
    Still, Silva estimates the 10-year proposal’s chances of success at no more than 50-50 and said a lot of work will be needed.
    Quoting from a letter by U.S. Senate advocates: “SRSC is not an entitlement program, but rather a demonstration of the commitment that this nation made to rural forest counties when it determined that large blocks (193 million acres in total) of our forrest lands should be set aside for the benefit of the entire nation. President Theodore Roosevelt understood the value of conserving our forest lands and placing them in public trust. He likewise understood the economic burden this placed on rural counties to provide essential infrastructure, like roads and public schools, with their tax revenues reduced by the federal lands within their boundaries.”
    We encourage lawmakers to again examine the merits of this proposal and give forest counties the long term funding and support they need and deserve.