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Timber payments have local backing

Expiration of program puts millions at stake

U.S. senators from Washington and Idaho all say they support a plan to extend payments to counties and school districts that have significant amounts of federal land inside their boundaries.

Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington and Raul Labrador of Idaho, however, are looking at plans to increase timber sales and other money-making activities on those lands, and set it aside for the those timber counties and school districts.

The Secure Rural Schools program, as the payments are called, expired Sept. 30, and the last payments will be sent to schools Dec. 31. Counties and school districts that have significant amounts of federal lands off the tax rolls have come to rely on the payments, which can be in the millions of dollars.

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell said the program would send about $103 million to the state over the next five years if it’s renewed. She and fellow Democratic Sen. Patty Murray are co-sponsors of an extension, as are Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch. The federal government needs to be a “good neighbor” and help pick up some of the burden of education and transportation costs, Risch said.

But the proposal could meet resistance in the House at a time of steep federal budget cuts. The House Natural Resources Committee is looking at a new system that would set up a special trust fund for schools and place money in it from the sale of timber on Forest Service land, or grazing fees or money from mineral exploration and development.

McMorris Rodgers is working on a version of that system that would reauthorize the payments temporarily and develop ways for “putting our people and our land back to work,” a spokesman said.

Providing the payments to timber schools and counties is a top issue for Labrador, spokesman Phil Hardy said. “There’s no chance that doesn’t go through” at least as a temporary measure.

Labrador also wants to study other options that would give the counties more access to national forest lands, Hardy said.

The Forest Service supports extending the Secure Rural Schools payments for five years, U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Harris Sherman said. But it opposes House proposals to increase harvest or mining or turn some federal land over to states. There would be problems with access, controversy and lawsuits, and it could add to the deficit, Sherman said.

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