Counties grab for control of national forests


Last month, the House of Representatives struck a blow for local control of the national forests.

For decades, counties have received 25 percent of the revenue from Forest Service timber harvested within their borders to fund county schools and roads. But in this decade, as federal logging has declined by 70 percent, so have timber receipts, especially in the Northwest. Rural schools have been forced to lay off teachers, reduce class offerings and forego new equipment.

Earlier this fall, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., proposed to sever the link between timber and schools, and instead give counties a steady payment from the Treasury. His bill was backed by the Clinton administration, the Forest Service and numerous environmental groups. But it died in committee.

"What's almost baffling is we'd come up with such an elegant solution to such a complex problem, and it was rejected. And I think a lot of that is we didn't do our homework," says Chris Wood, spokesman for Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck. "We went into a basketball game wearing cleats."

While the Forest Service and environmentalists were concentrating on schools, the counties were thinking about national forests, and who controls them. Now the House has passed a bill that not only preserves ties between national forests and counties, but strengthens them. Under existing law, those ties are passive - counties have no direct control over logging on the national forests. But under the Secure Rural Schools Community and Self-Determination Act (H.R. 2389), local advisory committees would get to finance many Forest Service projects, from logging to trail construction. With discretionary money to spend, local communities would have a lot of clout.

H.R. 2389 (a similar bill, S.1608, is now being negotiated in the Senate) is supported by a powerful coalition of county and timber interests, the National Education Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Black Caucus. Like DeFazio's failed bill, it authorizes additional federal monies to make up for the decline in timber sales. But in the bill's current form, make-up funding would have to be approved annually by Congress. With DeFazio's Treasury funding, monies would not have been tied to the appropriations nightmare.

"I really thought the counties would embrace that," Bob Freimark of the Wilderness Society said. "The number one concern (counties) raised to us is that they ... wanted to make sure they didn't have to go back and lobby."

With that idea dead, environmentalists' biggest worry now is how the victorious bill, H.R. 2389, makes payments to counties. While 80 percent of a county's payment is earmarked for roads and schools, 20 percent - about $100 million in annual appropriations nationwide - would be placed in a segregated account that makes grants exclusively to the Forest Service for projects approved by the county and a local 15-member committee.

All revenues from such projects - even ones only partly funded by the counties - would go back to the Forest Service, to be spent solely on other county-approved projects. Over time, counties could control about half of national forest budgets.

If the bill passes, it will be revolutionary.

"This is where the public-lands action will be fought in the year 2000," says Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. "This is the wise-user's wet dream. It's bad. Not only in its substance, but also in how neatly the opposition has packaged it as a save-our-rural-schoolkids kind of issue."

Stahl also calls the bill a Trojan horse. "I think NEA is being taken to school on this. They do not realize the debate is not over school funding. The issue is over who controls public lands ... They're just a pawn."

But unlike the opposition, Wood says his side never talked to the National Education Association. H.R. 2389 passed the House, he says, because its sponsors were savvy enough to reach outside the usual political box for new constituents.

"Debate over the past 15 years has been the monolithic timber industry versus the equally monolithic environmental movement," Wood says. They all "argue the moral righteousness of their causes, then run up the Hill to talk to the legislators that already support them ... it's a kind of Clash of the Titans."

No longer, he says. "The challenge of those who care about conservation is to stop talking to each other so much, and start talking to real folk. It's not really that revolutionary."

But Peg Reagan, a former Oregon county commissioner who founded the Conservation Leaders Network, thinks that talking to "real folk" may not be enough. "They're not local forests, they're federal forests, and I think it is exceedingly dangerous for local committees to have that kind of control ... the people who will tell you not to worry are the pro-timber people, because they want to have control of logging on national forest lands. (The intent of H.R. 2389) is to increase logging on federal forest lands."

An amendment proposed by Colorado Democrat Mark Udall underscores her point. His measure would have made the 20 percent investment project funds optional: Counties could elect to just use that money for roads and schools instead of having to spend it on Forest Service projects. The amendment was defeated.

Senate negotiators hope to work H.R. 2389 and the similar S.1608 into a new bill by the end of December so the Senate can vote on the bill when they return in February. Should it pass, President Clinton is considering a veto. Even so, Stahl has his doubts.

"Proponents of this bill have so much momentum right now that unless conservation groups truly burn the midnight oil, this bill will become law, with all its warts included."

* Karen Mockler, HCN intern

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