Rural communities in the West need a fair shake


A crew hired to remove conifers from aspen stands was part of a project paid for through Secure Rural Schools funds on the Salmon-Challis National Forest.
Courtesy Salmon Valley Stewardship

The failure to include the Secure Rural Schools program in this year’s budget puts a spotlight on a public-lands identity crisis that has been simmering, and sometimes boiling over, for decades.

President Theodore Roosevelt got it right in 1908. Roosevelt understood that his big vision of creating a national forest system would have enormous financial implications for the communities that border these forests.

But now, both the original intent of the national forest system and the pact made with local communities seem like relics of the past. Recent federal budget decisions and discussions make it clear: We in America have become confused about what our national forests mean to us, and we simply don’t give a damn about the neighboring communities.

The national forest system was created to improve and protect forests, secure water flows, and produce a continuous supply of timber. In fairness to the counties that contained these designated federal lands, Congress promised to share with them 25 percent of the receipts derived from the sale or use of commodities from each national forest. Mostly generated from timber sales, the money that went to the counties helped pay for critical services, such as public schools and roads.

When environmentalists successfully challenged the Forest Service’s timber mission though the 1980s and ’90s, Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden was among those who worked to broker a new deal with communities. His Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, enacted in 2000, was an attempt to honor the U.S. government’s commitments to the West’s rural communities.

The act not only offered counties money for schools and roads; it also earmarked funding for the restoration of forests and watersheds. The idea was to give out-of-work loggers and other members of the local workforce a chance to earn a living by taking care of the public forests. In communities like Salmon, Idaho, where I live, we used that money to improve aspen stands, keep noxious weeds from choking out native plants, and improve the trails that allow the American public access to some of the special lands they rightfully own. We kept families in town, thanks to this work.   

For some members of Congress, such as Republican Doc Hastings of Washington, the former chairman of the House Natural Resource Committee, that wasn’t enough. So the Secure Rural Schools law was eliminated by Congress, largely on the theory that eliminating funding would spur more timber harvests.

For most of us living in the rural West, this was a strange rationale: Trying to force the Forest Service to harvest more timber seemed at best grandstanding, at worst insulting. Legislative wand-waving is not going to bring back my town’s sawmill or its workforce, and it will not cure the forests of insect and disease or magically alter public values that have shifted from extraction to restoration. That train has left the station.

In 1908, President Roosevelt and Congress insisted that sharing timber revenues with impacted counties was the right and politically wise thing to do. Until we return to that approach, we will continue to see states challenging federal land ownership and management in a vain attempt to fill the vacuum. We’ll also be turning our backs on what looked like hope for rural communities and the land, a chance to recognize and invest in the bond that local people have with their places.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in January of this year that Forest Service lands “contribute more than $13 billion to the economy each year through visitor spending alone.” The department also says that Forest Service lands provide 20 percent of the nation’s clean water, at a value estimated at $7.2 billion annually.

Theodore Roosevelt recognized that a fair share of the national forests’ most important commodities of the time belonged to the counties that housed national forest lands. If we’ve now decided that the commodities we most value on these forests are recreation and clean water, let’s re-balance the books with that in mind. Those of us in rural places may have endured steeply declining education budgets over the past few years, but even we can cipher that 25 percent of $13 billion is a whole lot more than the $50 million counties will share this year. Our national forests are worth more than the timber we harvest, and forest communities deserve an honest share.  

Gina Knudson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She is the director of Salmon Valley Stewardship in Lemhi County, Idaho. The loss of Secure Rural Schools means a reduction of more than $2 million to Lemhi County’s budget.

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