By Marcy Stamper
One and a half million dollars for county roads, schools and fire prevention — to compensate counties for a loss of income from logging on federal lands — is hanging in the balance, since Congress did not reauthorize money for the program last year and has yet to take up the matter since the congressional session resumed.
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.
Although Pres. Obama’s preliminary budget for fiscal year 2015 included a five-year allocation for the SRS program, the 113th Congress did not reauthorize it, so the program expired at the end of September 2014.
Without a specific authorization for these supplemental funds (SRS started in 2000, after logging on federal lands had declined substantially), the program reverts to a 1908 law that bases payments on actual timber income. The 1908 law uses a formula that takes the average of seven years of timber revenue from national forests in each state and gives the state one-quarter of that amount.
As a result — without additional Congressional action — the entire state of Washington will receive $2.14 million in 2015, as opposed to almost $19 million last year, according to the letter sent to Gov. Jay Inslee in mid-January by the chief of the U.S. Forest Service. These funds are split 50-50 between schools and roads, but the county has not been notified how much of that money to expect, said Mc Cormack.
“The numbers are pretty shocking — it underscores the need for Congress to reauthorize the program as soon as possible,” said Brian Namey, director of media relations for the National Association of Counties (NACo).
While SRS is not on the Congressional agenda yet, it was brought up in a floor speech a week ago. “It’s a priority and on their radar — there are commitments from leadership to address it,” said Namey.
The president’s last budget included money for five years of SRS, along with the law’s built-in annual reductions. Even with SRS reauthorization, it would have meant a cut from the 2013 total of $300 million nationwide to $279 million for 2014. Subsequent reductions would have been much larger, dropping to $122 million in 2017 and $101 million in 2018, according to a summary by NACo.
Congress never acted on that budget, and those numbers could change when the president releases a new budget proposal next week, said Namey. The original SRS law was drafted so that the amount decreases each year, with the idea that Congress would find another solution to replace timber revenues, said Namey.
Cuts for fire prevention
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.
The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has its own landowner assistance program, which advises people and communities about fire prevention, wildlife habitat, forest health and logging, said Guy Gifford, fire prevention coordinator for DNR’s Northeast Region.
DNR still has adequate money for its program, which is supported by funds from various sources, said Gifford. “We expect to be continuing to offer this service for the next several years,” he said.
DNR also has grant money for fuels reduction and to improve forest health, which typically require a 50-percent match — either in cash or labor — from the property owner, said Gifford.
Even when the SRS program does get funded, advocates for the counties that rely on the money are accustomed to a struggle to ensure the appropriation.
“We urge you to work together to find a permanent funding solution for these programs and end the annual authorization and appropriations uncertainty that unnecessarily interferes with planning and budgeting in these small communities,” wrote the Western Governors’ Association in a letter to Congressional leaders in November.
“Failing to renew the SRS program will cause significant harm to the ability of rural and timber communities to provide basic services to their residents,” wrote Rep. Derek Kilmer. Thirty-four other representatives from western states also signed the December letter to congressional leaders.
Another blow to counties that rely on these funds came in 2013, when Washington had to return about $2 million from the SRS funds to the Forest Service to comply with the across-the-board budget cuts in sequestration, according to Sam Ricketts, director of the Washington, D.C., office for Gov. Inslee.
Local choice, responsibility
Counties have the opportunity to decide how to use some of the SRS funds, and have an obligation to tell the Forest Service, by the beginning of February each year, how they plan to spend the money. A Forest Service committee decides how to allocate all funding requests, according to Laura Merrill, policy director and timber coordinator for the Washington Association of Counties.
If counties do not show how they will use the funds, the county receives only the baseline 25-percent payments, the same amount the county is getting this year because the SRS program was discontinued.
In 2014, Okanogan County obligated $125,000 for the Firewise Communities program, $19,500 to develop community wildfire protection plans, and another $335 for search and rescue services on federal land. These allocations were for funds from fiscal year 2013.
Okanogan County has been cited twice by state auditors for not submitting the documentation about the SRS expenditures in time, although it did not prevent the county from receiving the money, according to Jake Santistevan, assistant audit manager for the Wenatchee region for the Washington State Auditor.
The SRS program is similar to another federal program known as Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT), which compensates counties for nontaxable federal lands but is not explicitly connected with timber revenues. That money was reauthorized last year and Okanogan County will receive $2.3 million.
Timber counties are still waiting to see if they can include the SRS money in their budgets. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced two amendments to the Keystone Pipeline Act that would provide a one-year retroactive reauthorization of SRS and a permanent mandatory authorization for PILT, although it is unclear whether these amendments will receive consideration, said Namey.
“I asked House and Senate Democratic leadership staff this morning if they had heard from their GOP majority counterparts about movement on a [SRS] bill in either chamber soon. Neither of them had heard anything. We’ll keep urging,” said Ricketts.