U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., introduced a two-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act Tuesday in an effort to help 33 cash-strapped rural counties maintain essential services.
He expects the House to approve the funding, which received strong bipartisan support later this week. The funding has been attached to a bill that reforms how doctors are paid under Medicare.
“Last December, Speaker Boehner and I committed to extending this lifeline for rural Oregon communities by March 31,” said Walden in a March 24 press release. “Today, we fulfill that commitment.”
He offers credit to Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., for working with leadership from his party to garner support for the funding.
“This two-year extension gives us time to continue work on a long-term plan to reform federal forest policy to grow jobs in the woods, improve forest health and provide certainty for essential local services like schools and roads,” stated Walden.
Andrew Malcolm, press secretary for Walden, said the funding will be a 5 percent reduction from the amount allocated in 2013 and paid out in 2014. The last amount Wasco County received was $946,000 and Hood River County was provided with $884,000 to spend on road maintenance and search and rescue activities.
“We are hopeful this will get through the Senate because of its broad support,” said Malcolm.
He said, if the bill is approved by the Senate, the fact that Democrats and Republicans are in agreement gives it a good chance of being approved by President Barack Obama.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has also gotten bipartisan co-operation for a three-year extension of Secure Rural Schools as an amendment to the Senate budget, which was approved last week by an 18 to 4 vote.
He worked with Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, to gain support for the funding.
“I will continue to pursue at every opportunity and on every piece of must-pass legislation, this lifeline for Oregon counties,” Wyden said in a March 24 written statement.
According to Malcolm, Oregon received more than $100 million in Secure Rural Schools funding in 2013.
The program was originally approved in 2000 as compensation for lost timber receipts from logging cutbacks in national forests.
The original funding formula was based on three years of harvest revenue from the 1980s that each county received in harvest revenue.
Walden and Wyden want the government to keep the promise it made to counties that lost the ability to tax or develop lands set aside by Congress as public forests.
The intent of the compensation was to give rural counties time to pursue other economic development opportunities to make up for the drastic decline in harvest levels brought by a series of environmental regulations.
However, counties were unable to make that transition and Walden and Wyden went to bat for several extensions at a lesser amount of funding.
A portion of the Secure Rural Schools funding goes into the common school fund and is distributed among Oregon schools. Since 2000, counties in the state have received a combined total of $2.8 billion, according to Wyden’s office.
“If the county timber payments were not extended, the consequences would be dire for public safety and education,” said Walden.
Wasco County has been struggling to figure out how to make up for the lost funding and still maintain about 700 miles of roads. Last year, the county commission scrapped a plan to ask voters to approve a taxing district to cover those costs after property owners objected.
Walden has pledged to continue bipartisan work to reform federal forest policy.
He would like to see managed harvests that remove diseased and overstocked stands of trees that create fuel for catastrophic wildfires.
The sale of that lumber would generate revenue for rural communities, which are struggling with higher unemployment and poverty rates.
“During the last session of Congress, the House twice passed a bipartisan plan to reform federal forest policy.
“Unfortunately, Senate Democratic leaders never took any meaningful action to reform federal forest policy. I pledge to continue working hard to put forth a long-term solution to actively manage our forests to grow jobs and revenue,” Walden stated in the press release.
Wyden laid the blame for failure to move the bill forward on an unworkable GOP plan.
“It is good news the House Leadership has decided to stop playing politics with the safety net for Oregon counties,” he said.
“Their decision is a concrete recognition that linking the safety net to unsustainable and unacceptable logging practices can never become law.”
Wyden and his aides have been working for months to develop a bill for managing the old Oregon & California Railroad trust lands.
These lands once produced a wealthy timber economy and a steady stream of federal payments to 18 western Oregon counties.
According to Wyden, the Bureau of Land Management has estimated that his bill could produce 300 to 350 million board-feet of lumber a year for the next two decades.
His bill has faced considerable skepticism from environmental groups worried that his bill could undo the protections of the Northwest Forest Plan brokered by the Clinton administration. And the legislation would set a precedent for easing environmental laws on public lands in other states.
For the same reasons, environmentalist have been strongly opposed to Walden’s forest plan.