UPDATED: Federal money received by rural communities may run out

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Kanab, Utah, undated | Photo courtesy of escalantegrandstaircase.com, St. George News

Updated Oct. 4, 2011, 7:06 a.m.

ST. GEORGE – Money promised to counties and schools negatively impacted by federal regulation face having those funds run dry.

The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000 was originally passed as a measure to help rural counties and the schools adversely affected by federal regulations that brought the timber industry to a halt. The Act was meant to be temporary as federal funds were given to schools that once received revenue from local timber production.

The Secure Rural Schools Act has been in force for the last decade. The Act was renewed in 2008 and given a lifespan that runs out on Sept. 30, 2011. However, with Congress and the Senate currently in recess, the life of the SRS has been temporarily extended.

In July, Utah Congressman Rob Bishop, the chairman of the House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, held an oversight hearing on SRS program.

“For more than a decade, the Secure Rural School’s Program has provided a safety net for rural communities in response to the federal government’s inability to manage the land and resources it took over more than a century ago,” Bishop said.

During the hearing, Bishop said that Congress must take a second look at public land policies that continually challenge timber-dependent communities. He also compared the federal funds from the SRS Program to a bribe.

“Secure Rural School funds are essentially hush monies paid to communities in exchange for not being able to use their land,” Bishop said.

County Impact

Utah received $13.2 million from the SRS in 2010, with $716,000 going to Washington County.

Garfield County, a county in which over 90 percent of the land is owned by the federal government, received $1.6 million in the same year. San Juan County was a close second at $1.5 million.

Payments to affected counties by the SRS were originally based on 25 percent of the income from receipts produced by public land use. This changed in 2008 when the payment was shifted from the receipts to the amount of acreage public lands covered in each county.

Funds from the SRS go to more than just schools within the county. Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner said that of the SRS money received in 2011, half – around $300,000 – was given to the Washington County School District. The rest was used for road construction and various other county projects.

Gardner has recently been to Washington DC and has worked with Senators Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch in an effort to get the SRS renewed.

However, Gardner said he would much rather rely on revenue derived from harvesting local resources than depend on the SRS funds, which he said are decreasing while the costs of the county’s operation going up.

Gardner also empathized with Garfield County’s current dilemma. The county and its schools relied heavily on the timber industry and coal mining. Both were taken away by federal decree and the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

“Cutting timber was the lifeblood of a lot of those schools,” Gardner said.

Gardner said high paying jobs that accompany the natural resources industry are non-existent in Garfield County, leaving the county to rely on the money from SRS.

“If they don’t get some of this money, they’re looking at bankruptcy,” Gardner said.

While not available at the time this article was first published, Commissioner Leland Pollock of Garfield County contacted St. George News and commented on the SRS’s affect on his county.

Commissioner Pollock explained the that Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000 was an answer to dwindling revenues supplied to rural counties for nearly a century by the US Forest Service.

Since 1908, the Forest Service supplied 25 percent of the revenue gained from forest receipts to rural counties. For decades the Forest Service operated in the black until federal regulations introduced in the 1990s impacted the timber industry.  The once self-sufficient system that the Forest Service relied upon was stunted, and also affected the rural communities that had benefited for nearly 90 years.

The SRS was seen as the answer to the problem, Pollock said, and now the US Congress wants to turn its back on obligations owed to the impacted counties by not renewing SRS funds.

Should the SRS fail to be renewed in the form of the new legislation that Representative Rob Bishop proposes, Pollock said that Garfield County faces losing a million dollars worth of federal aid. The bulk of that money is slated for road projects and schools for the coming year. Without it associated jobs face potential termination.

“Government regulation caused this emergency,” Pollock said.

Pollock praised Bishop’s efforts to make the federal government accountable for the “regulated catastrophe” that Garfield County and others like it currently face.

Pollock also pointed out that only 3.5 percent of the land in Garfield County was taxable. The remaining 95.5 percent of the county is owned by the federal government and the state.

However, Pollock stated his opinion on how the federal government has managed public land in his county during the hearings held in Washington County concerning the potential closure of uranium mining on the Arizona Strip. (See story here)

“The politics of the federal government have failed in Garfield County,” Pollock said.

In the same hearing, Justin Fischer, the economic development manager for Garfield County, said that the county is dying due to the federal government’s mismanagement of public lands.

“Anything in the natural resources area has been shut down,” Gardner said.

If he had his way, Gardner said that he would stop importing resources from other countries and harvest the ones at home. He said if the U.S. did that, particular problems the nation is currently facing could be solved.

“If we had our natural recourses going at full tilt, we wouldn’t have these economic problems,” he said.

For the time being, resource harvesting on public lands remain prohibited, leaving counties like Washington, Garfield and others throughout Utah and the country to rely on SRS handouts.

Possible Solutions

A congressional hearing on the uncertain future of the SRS was held on Sept. 22. During the hearing, Bishop introduced a draft meant to address the expiration of the SRS called the National Forest County Revenue, Schools and Jobs Act of 2011.

The new draft is described as a long term solution meant to succeed the SRS and restore healthy forest management.

“This legislation is about giving the Forest Service a clear direction and the ability to actually manage a portion of its land for the benefit of rural communities while beginning to improve forest health in the process,” Bishop said.  “For too long we have managed our national forest in a way that is completely devoid of social and economic realities facing the counties and states that host the public’s lands.”

Bishop went on to call the federal government an “absentee landlord” when it came to managing the third of the country it owns. The lack of management, he said, left the counties and schools holding the bag when it came to the consequences of the government’s inaction.

The new draft has yet to be sponsored by members of the House.

Bishop also introduced a bill called the Action Plan for Public Lands and Education Act (APPLE Act) of 2011. The APPLE Act would make five percent of federal lands within individual states available for development. The bulk of the money generated by these lands would go directly to education.

“The APPLE Act will give these states much-needed certainty in providing basic funding to education in response to a reversal of previous federal policy,” Bishop said.

Senator Orrin Hatch is cosponsoring the APPLE Act in the Senate.

Bishop mentioned that several criticisms had been raised against both plans he has put forth, as they challenge the sacred cow of federal control over public lands. He responded that those critics have yet to provide a viable solution of their own, beyond “continuing to write a check cashed from the People’s Republic Bank of China.”

Whether one or both of Bishop’s proposals survive the House and Senate long enough to become public policy remains to be seen.

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Copyright 2011 St. George News. This material may not be published or rewritten without written consent.

Related Links:

Rep. Bishop’s Page: (http://robbishop.house.gov/ )

The Secure Rural Schools Page:

(http://www.fs.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsinternet/!ut/p/c4/04_SB8K8xLLM9MSSzPy8xBz9CP0os3gjAwhwtDDw9_AI8zPwhQoY6BdkOyoCAPkATlA!/?ss=119985&navtype=BROWSEBYSUBJECT&cid=FSE_003853&navid=091000000000000&pnavid=null&position=BROWSEBYSUBJECT&ttype=main&pname=Secure%20Rural%20Schools-%20Home)

The APPLE Act of 2011 (HR 2852) (http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-112hr2852ih/pdf/BILLS-112hr2852ih.pdf )

Overview of the potential draft to replace the SRS Fund (http://naturalresources.house.gov/News/DocumentSingle.aspx?DocumentID=260128 )

Press Release for the House Natural Resources Committee, Sept. 22, 2011 (http://naturalresources.house.gov/News/DocumentSingle.aspx?DocumentID=261309 )

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