A Moment of Opportunity for Counties with Public Lands

 

By Mark Haggerty, 1-11-11

U.S. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack just announced that this year’s “transition” payments to counties from the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (SRS) will again “contribute to rural communities becoming self-sustaining and prosperous.”

The Secretary stressed that these payments ($389 million) fund local roads and schools—important for communities still feeling the after-effects of the recession. They do much more.

In the West, federal spending is important, but equally so are federal public lands. How SRS payments are funded and distributed is a key factor in determining how public lands are managed, and the kinds of jobs available in rural communities.

SRS is about to expire and federal deficit concerns make continued funding uncertain. Over the past 100 years, Congress has reformed and expanded county payments, with each change reflecting new economics and changing public attitudes. The pending sunset of SRS provides a new opportunity for reform, and for a renewed commitment to counties.

Every county that has federal public lands within its borders receives a payment from the federal government as compensation for the non-taxable status of these public lands.

Originally, counties received 25 percent of all revenue generated by commercial activities on public lands, mainly timber harvests.  After World War II, payments soared as logging increased to meet the demands of post-war growth and housing development.

By the 1980s and 1990s, peak payments had passed.  Economic volatility and new attitudes about how to manage public lands contributed to reduced federal harvests and falling county payments.

Over the same period, the economic value of public lands expanded as telecommunications and cheap air travel made public-lands counties attractive places to live and work. The problem of declining county payments was that they were not linked to the emerging amenity value of public lands—recreation, and healthy forests and watersheds—but remained pegged only to commodity production.

In 2000, Congress passed SRS to provide stable (but declining) payments, and new funding for forest restoration to aid this economic transition in rural places. Restoration puts people to work today, and healthy forests will create jobs in the future as people—their knowledge, skills and innovation—are attracted by healthy public lands.

If Congress does not reauthorize SRS, it will be a step backwards for forest management and rural prosperity. Counties will again receive payments equal to 25 percent of commodity receipts.  This outcome will not return timber harvests on federal lands to 1980s levels, but it will bring back the timber wars as counties push for maximum cuts to the exclusion of other land management goals.

Local services will also decline as commodity-based payments will be lower than current SRS payments—a second hit to self-sustaining communities as quality education and transportation services are necessary for success in the new economy.

This disconnect between the old payment mechanism (timber only) and a new one linked to the new economy (timber plus) must be bridged.

Headwaters Economics has assessed eight ideas for the reform of county payments, including some that link payments to the value of ecosystem services and economic need.  A white paper explore the pros and cons of each idea in terms of whether they provide stable and predictable compensation to counties, create diverse job opportunities, and improve forest health. Interactive maps allow you to see exactly what each idea means for any county or state’s future payment.

Money will be tight in the next Congress, which will require creative thinking about which programs to fund and how to spend limited dollars.  Reauthorizing and reforming SRS is perhaps the biggest opportunity Secretary Vilsack and Congress will have to ensure the goal of self-sustaining and prosperous rural communities becomes a reality.

Mark Haggerty is an economist at Headwaters Economics, an independent, nonprofit research group in Bozeman, Montana, dedicated to improving community development and land management decisions in the West.

Originally posted at NewWest.net

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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