The SRS program is a critical lifeline for rural counties across the country, but especially in timber states. Congress declined to extend the payments for 2015. There are multiple explanations for this, including that some lawmakers held out because they wanted timber reform measures that would actually increase the federal harvest as opposed to just extending the payments. Laudable as this goal may be, the counties have yet to receive any SRS money for this year and it’s having a huge impact on their budgets.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Forest Service announced that without SRS, the timber counties will receive money under a 1908 law that gives money to timber counties but until recently had been superceded by SRS. Problem is, the money paid under the 1908 law is much, much lower than what the counties would have received under Secure Rural Schools.
Here’s how the Associated Press described the drop in key Western states:
Forest Service payments to Oregon counties drop from $67.9 million to $5.9 million; California, from $35.6 million to $8.7 million; Idaho, from $28.3 million to $2 million; Washington, from $21.5 million to $2.1 million; and Montana, from $21.3 million to $2 million.
Congress may still decide to extend the SRS payments in coming weeks or months, but until that happens, rural counties around the West are struggling. Let’s take a look at three counties in Washington to illustrate the severity of the situation.
SKAMANIA COUNTY (SW Washington)
Late last year, county leaders developed a budget that assumed about $1.5 million from the Secure Rural Schools program, before Congress adjourned without renewing it. That money represents a sizeable chunk of Skamania County’s $9.8 million general operating budget.
If the payments aren’t renewed, the county has said, it could have to cut dozens of positions affecting numerous departments. The Stevenson-Carson School District also receives money from the timber payments program.
…Skamania County’s financial health is more dependent on timber than most. Eighty percent of the county is federally owned — most of that by the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the 1.3 million-acre Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Another 8 percent is owned by the state. And 10 percent of Skamania County is designated as private timberland, which generates significant tax revenue only when harvested.
OKANOGAN COUNTY (North-Central Washington)
Okanogan County — like more than 700 other counties around the nation that have federal timber lands — has received this compensation every year since 2000. The last payment from the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (SRS), in 2014 (for fiscal year 2013) provided $757,000 for schools and the same amount for roads, plus $71,000 for wildfire protection and search and rescue, according to County Treasurer Leah McCormack.
…Some of the SRS money goes to the Firewise program, which helps landowners create defensible space through education and assessments.
“I’ve expended all the Firewise money this year,” said Kirsten Cook, education and outreach coordinator for the Okanogan Conservation District, who makes site visits to advise people about fire risks and prevention.
Normally the part of SRS that pays for her time and travel would have lasted until the summer, but Cook had a huge increase in risk assessments after the Carlton Complex Fire last year. The fire prompted such interest in the program that Cook spent two 10-hour days in the Methow Valley every week for six weeks, doing four or five assessments each day.
JEFFERSON COUNTY (Olympic Peninsula)
Jefferson County commissioners have sent a letter to their congressional delegation urging support for reauthorization of a bill that supports road construction projects.
Letters went out last week to U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Mountlake Terrace, and Patty Murray, D-Seattle, as well as U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, asking them to support reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools and Self-Determination Act (SRS).
The act was created in 2000 to compensate timber counties for low harvests. It has not been reauthorized for this year, and funding levels have dropped dramatically.
Although revenue has fallen in past years, “not having the program at all is simply unsustainable,” the letter says.
“Jefferson County will face severe financial problems, that without an SRS extension and funding, will require us to forego even the most basic maintenance and repairs to avoid bankruptcy.”
Without renewed federal help, the cost of repairing storm-damaged roads will continue eating away at Jefferson County’s dwindling cash reserves, says county engineer Monte Reinders.
“We’re spending more than we’re taking in every year,” said Reinders, who is hopeful that Congress finds a way to renew the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which has provided annual payments to timber-rich counties since its enactment in 2000. “It’s not like getting Secure Rural Schools is a bonus for us. We’re eating into cash reserves every year, especially when we have storms like we did in December.”