Congressional inaction chops forest funding

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

December 27, 2006

Hood River County might have just received its last $1.7 million annual check from the federal government — about half of its road maintenance budget.

“We have three options: cut expenses, generate additional revenue or meet somewhere in between,” said Dave Meriwether, county administrator.

He said the county is looking at all of the different budget scenarios that could occur if Congress does not reauthorize the money. The funding is intended to offset the loss of timber harvests in national forests due to environmental regulations.

“We will present that information to the budget committee in the spring with both the best case scenario and worst case scenario,” said Meriwether.

He said it is worrisome that a new group of freshmen in the House and Senate will now have to be educated on the issue — especially when even veteran politicians did not seem to fully grasp the situation.

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., believes that senior members of Congress were grasping the potential problems by the end of the last session. These officials were briefed about plans being made by several counties to cut services, such as closing libraries, if the funding was discontinued.

“My biggest priority will be to get this funding reauthorized. This is a very serious issue and I think that, in the end, everyone in Congress will come to understand that,” said Walden.

The Rural Schools and Self Determination Act was not extended during the last session of 2006 as county officials had hoped. That funding was authorized six years ago to offset the loss of timber harvests in national forests.

The money was intended to give counties with a tax base reduced by federal forests — 61 percent of Hood River County’s land base — time to transition into another economy.

Meriwether said it takes longer for a resource-based county to diversify its economic interests. He said unemployment is now lower in Hood River County than in past years and job growth is up. But that doesn’t mean that rural communities aren’t still lagging behind major urban centers.

“Obviously a transition needs to occur but it’s not going to happen overnight; it takes awhile,” he said.

Walden and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., have long believed the government needs to keep its historical commitment to timber-dependent communities.

“Everything’s starting over in January so there are no guarantees. But I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to reauthorize this funding for at least one more year,” said Walden.

Congress passed laws in 1908 and 1937 that allowed these counties to receive a share of harvest receipts. The money was to be used for public education and infrastructure improvements.

However, by the mid- to late-1990s, a series of environmental regulations had reduced harvests by more than 90 percent in many areas, and 70 percent nationwide.

Consequently, payments to counties declined drastically and House Resolution 517 was passed in 2000 to stabilize the situation. The formula for distribution of monies was based on an average of the top three logging years in each county between 1986 and 1999.

The federal government has spent $1.6 billion during the last six years to support HR517. The money has helped 4,400 rural schools and prevented the closure of numerous isolated facilities. In addition, more than 780 rural counties make infrastructure improvements. In addition, it has fostered many search and rescue operations by providing equipment and been used for habitat improvements.

Hood River County has received the largest portion of its $2.8 million share for paving, striping and constructing roads. Another $580,000 is dedicated to public education and goes into the state coffers to be divvied up between all 36 counties.

In 2006 a presidential budget included funding for HR517 — the first time in history. However, the Bush Administration wanted to extend the program only one more year and proposed selling off more than 300,000 publicly owned acres on 2,934 parcels to raise the money. Roughly 400 of the nominated acres were within the Mount Hood National Forest.

Although these properties were largely sited in or near developed areas, conservation groups disagreed with the sale of public lands. And, following a national outcry, the idea was abandoned.

Walden then came forward with a plan that he believed would provide $130 million in new revenue over the next 10 years.

He also pushed for passage of the Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act to eliminate the threat of wildfires. The legislation streamlined the regulatory process to remove burned or bug-infested trees from national forests before they decayed and lost their marketable value. Although House Resolution 4200 garnered the approval of the full House, it was held up in the Senate.

Also failing to be approved by the Senate was DeFazio’s Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act. House Resolution 4761, which if passed by the House, would have expanded off-shore oil and natural gas production. In addition to providing about $250 million over five years for HR517, the bill was intended to decrease America’s dependence upon foreign petroleum products.

Meriwether said the county has banked $7.5 million in a reserve fund for road work emergencies — but does not want to use that money for routine expenses.

“We are going to remain hopeful that something will happen with the new Congress,” he said.

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