GRANTS PASS, Ore. – 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 educating 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.
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.