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Crapo, Risch co-sponsor bipartisan bill to extend rural county payments

Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch are introducing compromise legislation with a bipartisan group of senators to continue funding for the Secure Rural Schools program and the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program for the next five years. Among the other original co-sponsors: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada; Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico, and Lisa Murkowski, R–Alaska, chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources; and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, chairman of that panel's Public Lands Subcommittee. The new legislation comes as payments to timber-dependent rural counties - including many in Idaho - face expiration, with the end of what formerly was known as the Craig-Wyden program to make up for lost timber revenues to those communities.

“For years, our counties have been impacted by losses in timber and tax revenues on federal lands,” Crapo said.  “The federal government has a responsibility to be a good neighbor to these counties – they have already lost substantial funding for schools, roads and other essential services." Risch said, “In many of our counties, the federal government is the majority landowner.  When these large tracts of land are locked up by changing policies, a greater portion of education and transportation costs are pushed on to private property owners.  As a landowner, the federal government has a responsibility to help shoulder that burden.”

Both senators acknowledged that the legislation is a short-term, rather than long-term solution to the county payments issue; in a joint statement, they also said, "While this funding is a top priority, it must also be paid for by finding bipartisan, responsible offsets without raising taxes." Thus, the proposed legislation is just a "first step" to more discussions in Congress. You can read their full joint news release here, and click below for an AP story on the bill.


Bill to renew fed timber payments to be introduced
By JEFF BARNARD, Associated Press

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — A bill renewing the federal payments that have sent billions of dollars to rural timber counties hurt by declining logging on national forests will be introduced in the U.S. Senate next week.

But prospects for the program remain uncertain in the Republican-controlled House, with its tough budget rules. The Secure Rural Schools Act has sent more than $5 billion to 700 counties in 41 states since it was enacted in 2000.

The program's renewal will be introduced next week with bipartisan backing by Energy Committee Chairman Sen. Jeff Bingaman, said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. It calls for renewal for five more years, with payments declining by 5 percent each year.

"While passage of this legislation is not guaranteed, gaining Chairman Bingaman's support is an important step in our effort to get the job done," Wyden said in a statement. "Part of that effort includes education our colleagues in Congress on the unique challenges facing a state where the federal government owns more than 50 percent of the land."

All five Democrats from Oregon, as well as Republican Rep. Greg Walden, agreed to back the measure, along with Gov. John Kitzhaber. The Democrat governor went to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress, Wyden's statement said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Montana Democrats Sen. Max Baucus and Sen. Jon Tester also issued statements backing the bill.

Walden would like to put people back to work with increased logging on national forests, rather than continuing a handout, but there is widespread support for bridge funding, said his spokesman, Andrew Whelan. The budget climate remains difficult, he said.

The Forest Service has sent 25 percent of logging revenues to rural schools and counties since the early 1900s, and Oregon counties get 50 percent of timber revenues from so-called O&C lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Timber counties in Washington, Oregon and Northern California started getting safety net payments in the 1990s to make up for 80 percent cutbacks in logging on national forests to protect the northern spotted owl and salmon. Once the last payments go out this winter, the program will have generated $5.7 billion for counties — $4.5 billion from the Forest Service and the rest from BLM.

Counties in rural Western Oregon in particular say renewing the money is crucial to funding law enforcement, schools and other services.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said renewing the funding would give counties time for a more permanent solution to be worked out. He has proposed splitting the O&C Lands in western Oregon, with one part managed for fish and wildlife habitat, and the other leased for timber production.

Headwaters Economics in Montana has analyzed a House Resources Committee proposal to increase logging on national forests by easing environmental protections. It concluded that at current log prices, historically low because of the housing crash, the U.S. Forest Service would have to increase timber production more than 200 percent above the average for the past 30 years.

At current administrative costs, the Forest Service would have to spend $2.2 billion a year planning timber sales to generate the $378 million per year that has been going to counties.

"It's hard to imagine even under the most favorable market conditions, let alone the current market conditions," said Headwaters economist Chris Mehl.


Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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