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Forest funds face the axe

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

October 4, 2006

Hood River County could lose $2.8 million for schools and roads next year and, while officials remain hopeful the federal funds will be extended, they are preparing for the worst case scenario.

“I don’t think you can take away half a budget and either tax your way back up or cut by that much. So, we’ll be looking at the situation closely and probably trying to meet somewhere in the middle,” said Dave Meriwether, county administrator.

The Secure Rural Schools and Self Determination Act has not yet been reauthorized by Congress. But Oregon delegates have laid two bills on the table that raise at least some funds for the program.

U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., believe the government needs to keep its historical commitment to timber-dependent counties.

Congress passed laws in 1908 and 1937 that allowed counties with a tax base reduced by federal forests to receive a share of timber receipts. The money was to be used for public education and infrastructure improvements.

However, by the mid to late 1990s, a series of environmental regulations had reduced harvests by more than 90 percent in many areas, and 70 percent nationwide.

Consequently, payments to counties declined drastically and House Resolution 517 was passed in 2000 to stabilize the funding base. The formula for distribution of monies was based on an average of the top three logging years in each county between 1986 and 1999.

The federal government has spent $1.6 billion during the last six years to support HR517. The money has helped 4,400 rural schools and prevented the closure of numerous isolated facilities. In addition, more than 780 rural counties were able to make infrastructure improvements. Also, many search and rescue operations and habitat improvements were paid for by these federal dollars.

Two-thirds of Hood River County’s money — $1.7 million and half the current budget — has been used to pave, stripe and construct the county’s roads.

One third of it — $580,000 — pays for public education. The dollars dedicated for schools go into the state coffers and are divvied up between all 36 counties.

In 2006 — the first time in history — a presidential budget included funding for HR517. However, the Bush Administration proposed selling off more than 300,000 publicly owned acres on 2,934 parcels to raise money for the county payments. Roughly 400 of the nominated acres lay within the Mount Hood National Forest.

Although these properties were largely sited in or near developed areas, conservation groups disagreed with the sale of public lands. And, following a national outcry, the idea was abandoned.

Walden has now come forward with a plan that he believes will eliminate the threat of wildfire and provide about $130 million in new revenue over the next 10 years for counties.

The Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act has been co-sponsored by U.S. Reps. Brian Baird, D-Wash., and Stephanie Herseth, D-S.D. House Resolution 4200 has already garnered the approval of the full House. The legislation streamlines the regulatory process to remove burned or bug-infested trees before they decay and lose their marketable value.

“With enactment of my forest health bill, we can help fund the county payments program while at the same time improve the conditions in our forests after a fire,” said Walden.

The House has also approved the Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act proposed by DeFazio. House Resolution 4761 expands domestic off-shore oil and natural gas production. In addition to providing about $250 million over five years for HR517, the bill is intended to decrease America’s dependence upon foreign petroleum products.

The Secure Rural Schools Act has gathered 136 House and 30 Senate bipartisan cosponsors from across the country. The Senate version, Senate Bill 267, still awaits action by the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, on which U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore., are seated.

Meriwether said the county is anxiously awaiting the outcome of the federal legislative session that begins Nov. 13. He said there is a movement to extend HR517 by only one more year. And the county, facing this high level of uncertainty, is starting to look at all of the available options.

He said a reserve fund of $7.5 million is banked for road work emergencies — but should not be used to cover ongoing losses.

“It doesn’t make sense to spend it and then try to figure out what to do. We are going to start doing some serious planning,” Meriwether said.

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