Logging no longer would determine how much money counties receive for roads and schools under a plan proposed Monday by the Clinton administration.
Instead, counties would have the choice of receiving either the equivalent of their 1997 payments each year or an alternate amount based on a new formula.
“It assures counties a stable source of income for roads and schools,” said Jim Lyons, undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture - the Forest Service’s parent agency.
The Forest Service long has paid counties with national forest land 25 percent of the agency’s gross receipts. In the Inland Northwest, the bulk of that money comes from timber sales.
Commonly called “25 percent payments,” the program is designed as a payment in lieu of property taxes. Counties are guaranteed a minimum amount of money based on the national forest acreage within their borders or a quarter of the timber, mining and grazing receipts - whichever is greater. Most counties spend 70 percent of the money on roads and 30 percent of it on schools.
Fluctuating logging levels and timber prices and other unpredictable factors can dramatically change the amount the counties spend each year. Benewah County received the least of North Idaho counties in 1997 - $62,435 - while Kootenai County received $492,483.
County payments were a key factor in last year’s heated debate over scaling back logging road construction. Fiscal conservatives and environmentalists joined forces and nearly eliminated a Forest Service program that gives up to $50 million a year in timber to logging companies in return for the companies building logging roads.
Opponents of eliminating the logs-for-roads program argued that it would mean less timber harvest and less money for the county roads and schools program.
The Clinton administration also announced other significant changes in the Forest Service road program clearly aimed at quelling that controversy. Beginning next year, the Forest Service no longer will trade trees for roads, the agency announced.
In addition, Clinton’s budget message called for providing $218 million to remove roads and rebuild roads in 1999. That could mean a dramatic increase in the number of miles of Forest Service road eliminated.
For example, the agency says that under the new plan, it will obliterate 1,500 miles of logging roads this year and 3,500 miles next year.
The Idaho Panhandle National Forests, with the highest road densities in the nation, could receive a sizeable chunk of the obliteration money.
“We would compete strongly for those dollars,” said Dave O’Brien of the Panhandle. “We would support any increase in that kind of funding.”
The Panhandle Forests plan to take out 100 miles of old logging road this year. The additional money under the Clinton plan could boost that by at least 20 miles.
The Colville National Forest, meanwhile, has two segments of road slated for obliteration this year although a specific number of miles isn’t known. The Colville takes out far fewer miles of road than other area national forests.
The environmental community says it welcomes any increase in the number of roads eliminated. The Forest Service has 440,000 miles of logging road and a $10 billion maintenance backlog.
“They have a vast network they can’t maintain,” said Steve Holmer of the Western Ancient Forest Campaign. “It’s literally crumbling into the stream.”
And despite the proposed elimination of the logs-for-roads program in 1999, the Forest Service still has plans to spend more than $37 million for new logging roads.
“That doesn’t make any sense when they can’t deal with the system they’ve got,” Holmer said.
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Ken Olsen Staff writer The Associated Press contributed to this report.