By Raju Chebium
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Congress is debating the fate of two programs that have sent billions of federal dollars to rural America since the 1970s and helped impoverished communities build schools, roads and provide other essential services.
Lawmakers are deciding whether to extend the so-called Secure Rural Schools and Payment in Lieu of Taxes programs, under which heavily forested rural areas in every state got a total of $684.4 million last year -- $291.4 for schools and $393 million to make up for lost tax revenues.
Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee agreed during a hearing Tuesday that the programs keep afloat 729 counties and municipalities, many out West, that are home to federally owned forests.
But partisan differences emerged over how Congress should permanently resolve long-standing friction between Uncle Sam and local officials.
Counties lose property taxes and revenue from timber sales because the federal government owns much of the land within their borders. Many local officials also chafe at having to comply with federal bans or restrictions on logging, mining and recreational activities.
Democrats urged Congress to temporarily renew the two programs, which were set up to compensate counties for some of the revenue losses.
But Republicans said Congress may need to hand over the forests to state and local officials and lift federal regulations that critics claim have devastated small towns and villages across the U.S.
Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., are working on a plan to temporarily extend the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, a 2000 law that Wyden co-wrote to provide a steady source of federal income to forest counties. The law expired last year.
Both Democrats said a temporary extension would buy time for lawmakers to work out a long-term deal to help struggling counties and balance the timber industry's needs with environmental concerns.
"We're trying to deal with the short-term -- because people have seen how great the hurt is -- and then look at some longer-term approaches," Wyden said after the hearing. "I think you heard a real sense of urgency from this side of the panel."
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the panel's ranking Republican, said Secure Rural Schools was "never intended to be a permanent entitlement program" for timber-dependent counties and added that extending the program will be a tough sell.
"The federal government is broke. We cannot continue to pay counties not to use federal land," Murkowski said.
What the U.S. Forest Service should do is to allow more logging or give up the land, she said.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., suggested that the federal government should allow more logging and lift environmental regulations that he said are stifling rural communities.
Wyden agreed that the government should allow more logging -- something Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell said he supports as part of an overall restoration plan to remove diseased trees and curb wildfires.
Supporters warned against letting school and tax payment programs expire.
Counties would take a huge hit if Congress reverts to a 1908 revenue-sharing plan, under which local jurisdictions received 25 percent of timber proceeds from federal forests, they said.
Tidwell said in written testimony that school payments would be $58 million this year under the revenue-sharing model. That's a drop of about $233 million from last year's level.
Americans want the federal government involved in forest management, Tidwell said. The agency he leads manages 193 million acres of forests and grasslands.
"The national forests exist is because the public wants them," he said after the hearing. "We manage these lands based on a set of laws and regulations that reflect what the public wants."
Gannett Washington Bureau