U.S. senators from Idaho and Oregon on Thursday touted legislation they introduced to create an endowment to replace revenue lost by rural counties due to declines in timber cutting on federal lands.
Republicans Jim Risch and Mike Crapo of Idaho and Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon gathered at the Idaho Statehouse to talk about the Forest Management for Rural Stability Act introduced last week.
The senators say the legislation would create an endowment to give at least $300 million annually to rural counties in 40 states for schools, roads, law enforcement and other essential services.
Rural counties, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, have suffered economically as commercial timber cutting on federal land fell to about a fourth of what it was in the late 1980s. Many states in the U.S. West contain large amounts of federal land. Rural communities receive a share of the money from timber harvest on that land.
But federal land is not subject to property taxes by counties. So when timber harvest declined, rural counties not only lost timber revenue, but they couldn’t make that up with property taxes.
“The federal government owes these counties an obligation to solve that fiscal problem,” Crapo told about 150 people that included officials from both states.
“Simply put, long-term quality of life in rural America requires a new long-term roadmap,” Wyden said. “That is what we are laying out here today.”
The legislation calls for Congress to charter a nonprofit corporation to manage the endowment fund independent from the U.S. government. Money generated from interest and investments from the endowment would finance payments to counties.
The endowment fund would be created with a one-time appropriation by Congress of $7 billion. More money would be added with timber harvest on federal lands, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service money generated from timber sales and grazing leases at National Wildlife Refuges, and money from Bureau of Land Management lands in Oregon and California.
Ultimately, the senators said, the fund would increase and pay out more than $300 million annually.
The plan includes an emergency clause that requires any shortfall to the counties to be made up from the U.S. Treasury. The senators said all bills include an emergency fund, and their calculations in the legislation aimed to avoid shortfalls.
“An emergency or not, this is a moral obligation to the United States of America,” Risch said. “Forget the emergency, this has got to be paid.”
Similar legislation introduced last year died in the Senate Judiciary Committee without a hearing. Risch said the new legislation could face tough going with lawmakers in the Eastern U.S. where states don’t have large federal government land holdings such as in the West. About 63% of Idaho, for example, is land managed by the federal government.
Another program, the Secure Rural Schools program, has been giving money to rural areas hit by reduced timber harvest revenues, paying out about $7.5 billion since it started in 1990. But the program has had ups and downs with the amount of money distributed each year, and has also had problems getting reauthorized by Congress and expired in September. All that makes financial planning for rural counties difficult.
Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a watchdog group that describes its mission as holding the Forest Service accountable for responsible land stewardship, said rural counties have been hit hard by reduced logging.
“The reason for this is very simple,” he said. “We ran out of valuable old-growth timber to cut. Those days are long gone. The trees aren’t around anymore.”