WASHINGTON — A century-old federal program that compensates counties straddling huge tracts of nontaxable national forests has expired, and House Republicans are using its reauthorization to push for opening the land to more logging and mining.
The GOP wants to shift the forest-payment program closer to its 1908 origin, when the federal government directly split revenue from timber, mining and other activities to pay for local schools and roads in Washington state and around the country.
Environmentalists and the U.S. Forest Service oppose the changes, including proposals to re-link payments to the amount of timber or minerals extracted and to set first-ever minimum timber-harvest targets for each national forest.
Currently, logging in national forests produces about 3 billion board feet of timber annually, a 75 percent drop from its peak 20 years ago.
Beleaguered local officials, already grappling with budget shortfalls, are pressing for quick reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act to avert an interruption in payments. At the same time, they want Congress to revamp the payments, which they consider inadequate and undependable.
The legislative debate will resume this week when Congress returns from recess. Lawmakers were unable to reconcile several versions of the reauthorization bill in the House and the Senate before the legislation expired Friday.
House Republicans, led by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, are using the reauthorization to push two of the issues that have dominated their agenda this year: cutting federal spending and rolling back environmental regulation.
Among other things, they would set minimum requirements on timber sales and annual revenue for each national forest. They also want to speed up environmental reviews of logging, grazing, drilling and mining, blaming the reviews for hindering projects on federal lands.
In addition, Republicans have called for paying counties 75 percent instead of the historical 25 percent of revenue from federal forests, handing local officials a tempting financial motive to support cutting more trees.
"This is a sinister attempt to go back to the days when logging was the dominant use of national forests," said Michael Francis, director of the national forests program for The Wilderness Society. "The American people like their forests green and they like it clean. You can't turn back the clock."
The math behind federal forest payments worked for the first 80 years. Wide-scale logging generated enough revenue that the 25 percent share for counties was enough to help sustain rural communities dominated by federal lands.
But that formula fell apart after the legal battles that pitted loggers against the northern spotted owl and the environmental movement in the 1980s and 1990s. Suffering from drastically reduced timber harvests, the counties in 2000 persuaded Congress to pass a new Security Rural Schools act that uncoupled the payments from the annual logging haul and other revenue.
The forest payments morphed into an entitlement program paid directly out of the U.S. Treasury.
In 2010, those payments totaled $412 million to 729 counties around the country. Washington received $34.6 million, more than any other state besides Oregon and California.
Hastings, whose National Resources Committee has jurisdiction over the legislation, contends the Forest Service has failed to manage the forests vigorously. He complains federal timber sales are too small and too infrequent.
He also says wilderness designations, land acquisitions and overregulation have put so much land off-limits that some forests aren't thinned enough to adequately reduce the risk of wildfires.
Harris Sherman, undersecretary with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the agency, has warned that Republicans' proposals "would do more harm than good" by increasing logging and mining on protected lands, reducing recreational opportunities and inviting more lawsuits.
Skamania County has the most to lose
Paul Pearce, a Skamania County commissioner, says the federal government has some responsibility to rural areas where it owns so much of the land. The forest payments were a promise forged out of the government's decision in 1891 to reserve 40 million acres for what later became the national forests. Today, national forests encompass 193 million acres.
Skamania County, in the Columbia River Gorge, contains the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Some 90 percent of the county is federally owned, and it was the state's largest recipient of forest payments in 2010, with $8.3 million.
Pearce said losing that money would cut the county's roads budget by almost half and close two of the four school districts in the county. Any impact, however, wouldn't be immediate because forest payouts arrive in January.
Pearce supports some of the proposed changes, including increasing timber harvests.
But he's skeptical of the Republican proposal to mandate minimum harvest levels. Americans' view of national forests has changed markedly in a generation, he noted, and they treasure the environmental and recreational benefits of the forests as much as the economic value of the trees and minerals.
"There is no desire on the part of the public to go back to the '70s," Pearce said.
That's partly why Pearce believes counties like his can't — and perhaps shouldn't — rely on federal payouts forever. To that end, Skamania County has been exploring ways to diversify.
Tourism? Converting wood trimmings and other biomass into electricity? The future is unclear for a place where only 3 percent of the land isn't federal or private forests.
"How do we go forward economically? The answer to that is, 'I don't know,"' Pearce said.