Financing Secure Rural Schools With No Money
On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives will hold a hearing on at least one bill to address the expiration of the Secure Rural Schools Act (SRS), which supplies rural counties with federal cash to counterbalance declining forest products revenues. As it turns out, the federal government is out of money.
The imminent end of SRS is of some serious concern to North Idaho counties which have received millions of dollars in direct annual payments which may no longer arrive. Recently, several Idaho counties floated a trial balloon for a “Community Forest Trust” in which the federal government would set aside some 200,000 acres of federal forest lands in Idaho for local management under local laws for local revenues.
While we’re sincerely sympathetic to the plight of the rural counties, we’re concerned that some of the solutions proposed so far are ill-advised, and would likely compound the problem of funding local government services. In a letter sent today to the Shoshone County Commissioners who solicited our input on the counties’ proposal, KEA noted:
The proposal would essentially transfer land out of public control and established multiple-use management and would eliminate environmental and procedural protections that have served to improve our forests, watersheds, and wildlife resources. Moreover, ultimately, we don’t know that such a proposal would solve the structural economic problems the SRS was intended to bridge.
Our letter described major concerns with the environmental protections, the selection of the trust lands, the accountability of the trust and trustees, the value lost to the federal taxpayer, and the legal difficulties posed by federal ownership but local control. But our letter was also concerned about the failure to see handwriting on the wall:
While we absolutely concur that rural Idaho counties need a long-term solution for schools and roads funding, ultimately, coupling a solution to federal lands management may be too constrictive. For example, broadband, health care, education, and clean energy are economic sectors we’d emphasize for more sustained growth, and we’d certainly hope Congress would focus on those opportunities in the SRS reauthorization debate.
Indeed, this proposal of a Community Forest Trust appears to be a doubling-down on a bet that forest resources will be an economic engine like it was several decades ago. Unfortunately, there’s just no evidence that it’ll work. Currently on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, there is a huge backlog inventory of timber “sold” by the federal government but not yet actually cut. And mills continue to close — not for lack of timber supply, but for lack of product demand. A Community Forest Trust, which would presumably put more timber onto the market to generate revenue for the Trust, would only compound the current supply and demand imbalance.
This is a tough spot for counties, which will have immediate financial needs that will go unmet if SRS isn’t reauthorized. There are lots of ideas on how to do things better. But the counties shouldn’t be clamoring for Congress to make things worse.
Update 9/21: Here’s a statement from Congressman Labrador. “Congressman Labrador and the county commissioners from throughout Idaho were unanimous in their desire to find a solution that would increase the revenue stream from our federal forests.” Why? “Diseased forests on a colossal scale in immediate danger of catastrophic wildfire.” No risk of understatement by our Congressman.