Timber counties get new money



Since 1908, counties with national forests have received 25 percent of Forest Service timber receipts to pay for schools and roads. In recent years, rural communities have struggled financially as logging has declined (HCN, 12/20/99: Counties grab for control of national forests).

Now, after several years and six legislative versions, President Clinton is expected to sign a bill sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, to make up for the loss. It appears to give former timber counties federal tax money without making it easy to use the funds to increase logging, as opponents said earlier versions of the bill did.

The new law gives states money equal to the average of the three highest payments from national forest timber receipts between 1986 and 1999. Between 80 and 85 percent of this money is earmarked for roads and schools, though counties can spend the remaining 15 percent to 20 percent on other programs, such as buying conservation easements for access to public lands and paying for search and rescue.

But counties have a choice: Instead of spending all of the balance on community projects, counties can give the leftover money to new Resource Advisory Committees. These groups of 15 community members, appointed by the local Forest Service supervisor, can fund projects on national forests, including watershed rehabilitation, thinning forests or building and maintaining roads.

Critics say these committees give locals too much control over federal land.

"This is not acceptable to us environmentally because these projects will and can include timber sales," says Lisa Dix of American Wildlands. Although the 15-person committee will be made up of equal numbers of local elected officials, business owners and environmentalists, and although a timber sale must be approved by 12 of the 15 members, Dix believes the language is too vague.

"What counts as a local environmentalist?" she asks.

But some critics of the bill's earlier versions say that because proceeds from any county-funded timber sale return to the U.S. Treasury and not to the local community, the legislation doesn't encourage more logging.

"What (local timber companies) tried to do at the very beginning was blackmail the Forest Service into logging more, and that didn't happen; we dodged a bullet," says Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. Stahl thinks most counties will use the excess money on county programs - not timber sales.

"I've never known a county to leave money on the table," he says.

"This accomplishes what we really wanted to do," says Randy Moody of the National Education Association. "The bill guarantees a steady stream of funds for these school districts that have been having a hard time of it, regardless of national forest policy."

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