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WA's "Timber Counties" Ponder Their Budgets, Futures

October 10, 2011

STEVENSON, Wash. - The Secure Rural Schools Act has provided money to Washington's timber counties to make up for tax revenue they can't collect on their National Forest acreage. But the program expired last month, and the last county payments will be made in January unless it is reauthorized.

A new proposal is being introduced this week in the U.S. Senate to reinstate the county payments for five more years, reducing the payment amounts by five percent a year.

In places like Skamania County, where 90 percent of the land is federal, County Commission Chair Paul Pearce says the federal government is getting a great deal for its county payment dollars.

"We receive really pennies on the acre, when you think about it. I mean, the $5 million that my county was getting from that nearly million-acre forest, is $5 an acre. That's pennies."

Pearce says the payments to his county have fluctuated over the years from $8 million to less than $2 million. He says counties need to know what they can count on from the government, adding that the Senate bill would offer that stability as they try to diversify their economies.

Conservation groups are encouraged by the bill, which is co-sponsored by Washington's U.S. Senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, as well as the entire Oregon congressional delegation. Peter Dykstra, Pacific Northwest regional director for The Wilderness Society, says one hitch could be how quickly Congress can reach an agreement.

"The way the delegation in Oregon and the delegation in Washington are coming together across party lines, and the governors are starting to step up and support this concept, gives me a lot of hope that this will pass."

There may not be many people in rural counties, but Pearce says they still have schools, roads and public safety to pay for, and counties across the West face huge budget deficits if the program goes away.

"Certainly we're concerned with the gridlock you see right now, and we're also concerned that, in this climate of 'cut everything,' these 700 national forest counties could end up getting cut without anybody even noticing."

An alternate plan in the U.S. House takes a different approach. It would keep the program, but restructure it to ease environmental regulations and allow more logging and mining activity on public land.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA