A Forest Service program that pumped millions of dollars into rural communities has expired leaving more than 700 counties and 4,000 school districts facing sharply reduced revenue-sharing timber harvest payments.
The Secure Rural Schools program, enacted in 2000, was aimed at shoring up the financial wherewithal of communities and school districts in 41 states where timber harvests were in decline. Historically, those communities had relied on an early 20th century law guaranteeing 25 percent of timber revenues dedicated to local governments. But as federal environmental policies dramatically reduced logging in the 1990s, those local budgets were strained.
The money went to rural schools, roads and emergency response programs in 720 forested counties and also permitted improvements within Forest Service lands. Counties could be reimbursed for search and rescue costs on federal lands and funds could be used to establish wildfire plans.
The law had provided gradually reduced payments since 2012 and was authorized a final time at $285 million in April 2015 and expired six months later. Payments to counties at the previous 25 percent level will start to be sent out in February, said Babete R. Anderson, the national press officer for the Forest Service.
“Without Congressional reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools Act, the Forest Service must revert to making payments to states under the 1908 act, commonly called ‘the 25 percent payments,’ for the 2017 payment year,” Anderson said in a prepared statement. “We are working through the steps required to process the 25 percent fund payments expeditiously and anticipate making those payments by the middle of February.”