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County payments fall

GRANTS PASS — The Obama administration is telling governors in 41 states how much money they are losing after Congress ended subsidies paid the past 20 years to counties that contain national forest land.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday that the U.S. Forest Service is sending more than $50 million to 746 timber counties in February, with Oregon and other Western states the biggest recipients. That compares to about $300 million paid out last fiscal year under the Secure Rural Schools subsidy program.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell sent letters to governors detailing how their payments would be cut.

Since 1908, the Forest Service has paid a quarter of its logging revenues to counties to be used for roads and schools. That law was enacted to win support for the newly created national forest system.

When logging was cut by 90 percent on federal forests in the Northwest to protect the spotted owl and salmon, Congress started approving the subsidies.

As logging cutbacks spread around the country to protect fish, wildlife and clean water, Sen. Ron Wyden, R-Ore., sponsored the Secure Rural Schools bill, which expanded the subsidies.

They include payments to counties in western Oregon with U.S. Bureau of Land Management timberlands, which are at a higher rate, and used largely for sheriff's patrols and jails.

The president's budget included a five-year renewal of the program, but it died in the last days of Congress.

Wyden could not get it attached to a must-pass appropriation in the Senate. The House attached a one-year extension to a bill ramping up logging on national forests, but that bill had no traction in the Senate and a veto threat from the White House.

The subsidy issue is expected to come up again this year.

Timber states in the West are seeing the biggest drop.

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.

Expiration of Secure Rural Schools also dries up money for search and rescue operations and conservation projects on national forests. In Oregon, some cash-strapped counties got permission to use road funds for law enforcement.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., has said he has a commitment from House speaker John Boehner to try to renew Secure Rural Schools for one year sometime in the first quarter of this year. But Republicans also are expected to try again to boost logging on national forests.

Expiration of Secure Rural Schools also dries up money for search and rescue operations and conservation projects on national forests. In Oregon, some cash-strapped counties got permission to use road funds for law enforcement.

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