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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Counties fear worst if forest funds lost

Money’s so tight in Ferry County that pothole filling and road crack sealing have become luxuries. Nowadays the rural county in Washington’s northeastern corner is more likely to simply rip the asphalt from a road.

“At least we can grade it and smooth it up,” explained Mike Blankenship, who serves as chairman of the county’s board of commissioners.

But even de-paving roads could soon become too expensive. The county stands to lose $400,000 a year – a third of its road budget – because of a proposed Bush administration budget cut to a program meant to help rural counties weather the decline of logging on federal land.

For five years, the so-called County Payments program has injected billions of dollars into school and road budgets in heavily forested counties across the West. Last year, Washington received about $42 million; $21 million more went to Idaho, or about a dollar per acre of national forest land.

Earlier this month, the Bush administration proposed cutting the payment in half next year and phasing out the program within five years. The White House also proposed paying for the program by selling 309,000 acres of national forest land, which is believed to be the largest single selloff of national forest since the U.S. Forest Service was founded 101 years ago.

In announcing the plan, administration officials said the payments were never meant to be permanent but were designed to ease the pain of dying timber economies. County leaders across the Inland Northwest say their economies have yet to bounce back from the loss of the federal timber harvest.

“The recovery’s not happened here,” said Sherry Krulitz, a commissioner from Shoshone County, Idaho, which receives about $4 million each year through the program. “They were hoping by now we’d be back in the woods, but I don’t think we have recovered at all.”

Losing the federal funds would be “a disaster,” Krulitz said.

County officials also bristle at the notion of the payments as a frivolous entitlement. National forests do not contribute to property tax rolls, but the federal government tried to offset this loss by returning to counties a quarter of all proceeds from timber sales.

Logging on federal land, however, has declined dramatically in the past 10 years, largely because of lawsuits filed to halt wildlife and fish habitat destruction that resulted from earlier logging practices. In Boundary County, Idaho, for example, 41 million board feet of lumber was cut from public land in 1990. Two years ago, 13 million board feet came out of the forests, said Dan Dinning, a county commissioner.

The cut has been reduced, but the gap on the tax rolls remains. In Boundary County, three-quarters of the land is public. The federal government should help forested counties until the bigger questions can be sorted out over the proper management of national forests, Dinning said.

“The intent was never to provide a welfare state. It was to provide relief until something changed. I don’t really see something changing,” unless lawsuits over forest management are somehow halted, Dinning said.

A little more than 10 percent of Boundary County’s budget comes from the County Payments program. Of this, $362,000 goes to the county school district. The funds are used largely for building maintenance, said Don Bartling, district superintendent.

“We depend on that money,” he said. Without it, “We’d have to make some severe cutbacks.”

Congress, however, must first approve any cuts. Lawmakers are still considering a separate proposal to reauthorize the program at full funding.

The Bush plan has received a chilly reception from Western lawmakers, including Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, an author of the County Payments program. If the budget cut doesn’t have Craig’s support, it’s doubtful it would go far, said Jonathan Oppenheimer with the Idaho Conservation League. The group is tracking the proposal because it would be funded by a public land sale, including 26,000 acres in Idaho.

“I don’t really see this as having a lot of potential,” Oppenheimer said. “Even Craig is not excited about this, which says a lot.”

But deep budget cuts are being considered across many federal programs. Stevens County, Wash., Commissioner Merrill Ott said he gets nervous at the mere mention of losing the County Payments program.

“I know there are budget crunches. We know the (Hurricane) Katrina rehabilitation has been a real crunch, but losing this would be very difficult,” Ott said.

Stevens County received about $300,000 each year through the program, which is well below the $3 million it once earned as its share of federal timber harvests, Ott said. “As long as the federal government is keeping these properties and saddles counties with roads, there should be some compensation. It has to be in balance.”

Selling off national forest land to partially fund the County Payments program has attracted widespread criticism from hunters, anglers and hikers, but many county leaders in the Inland Northwest think certain tracts ought to be placed under private ownership. At least this would mean a few more dollars from property taxes and the possibility of more trees to feed local sawmills, said Karl Dye, commissioner in Bonner County, Idaho.

“If you can’t sell renewable resources from those lands, one thing you have to do is take a look at selling those lands,” Dye said.