Century old law returns to fund forest communities

  • Tuesday, January 20, 2015 11:07pm
  • News

Alaska’s already tight budget is set to get a little snugger for some communities dependent on national forests.

At the end of last year, Congress failed to renew Secure Rural Schools funding, which had provided states and territories roughly $330 million annually. SRS funding was intended to offset the lack of funds received by communities dependent on income from national forests.

According the Forest Service, between 80-85 percent of the SRS money each community received was used to help fund rural schools and roads, while the remaining money could be used toward special projects on federal land and county funds.

Because SRS funding failed to pass, many states, including Alaska, will now receive money from the Twenty-Five Percent Fund Act of 1908, which had previously provided communities with a portion of 25 percent of the proceeds earned by national forests, before states started receiving SRS money. The need for funding is partly a result of local governments and communities being prohibited from collecting taxes on federal land.

The money from the 1908 Act, however, is significantly lower than SRS funding.

This year, the state of Alaska will receive $535,167 from the U.S. Forest Service as part of the 1908 Act. Together, 41 states and Puerto Rico will receive a total of $50,388,613.

This is a stark contrast to the SRS money distributed in 2014, when Alaska received $14,244,726 and total money distributed to all states and territories was $300,048,590.

While the lack of SRS funding could cause problems for some Alaska communities, the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s budget for this year shouldn’t be affected. Craig Chapman, finance director for the borough, said that the KPB doesn’t budget for SRS funding because of the possibility the payments may not come.

Chapman said he isn’t worried about the SRS’s effect on the budget.

“It will have no impact,” Chapman said.

Last year, the Kenai Peninsula received $676,602 from SRS payments. The Juneau district received $728,907 and Anchorage received $93,039.

The Twenty-Five Percent Fund Act takes the average of the receipts garnered from national forests over the course of seven years (on a rolling basis) and distributes the money to “counties situated in proportion to acreage of national forest in the affected counties,” according to the Forest Service’s Election and Allocation Guidelines.

According to a United States Department of Agriculture press release, when the 1908 Act payments began to decrease decades ago due to the decline in timber sales, Congress felt it necessary to provide financial support to regions of California, Oregon and Washington that were reliant on the payments. The press release states that in 2000, Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act as a safety net for regions throughout the United States.

In a press release, Sen. Lisa Murkowski wrote that SRS payments were an important stopgap to help ailing communities fund schools and roads, but finding a long-term fiscal solution was also imperative.

“I will continue to work to ensure that our forested communities are made whole,” Murkowski wrote. “Over the coming year, though, we must also seek a better way to create healthy economies for communities that have traditionally worked our national forests. The best answer is both tried and true: a return to the active management of our national forests.”

Murkowski, who supported SRS payments, wrote about the difficulties of trying to get the act renewed.

“The simplest explanation for the lack of SRS funding in our flurry of year-end legislation is that the program is increasingly difficult to fund, as the rising costs of resource restrictions collide head-on with an ever-tighter federal budget,” Murkowski wrote. “This outcome stands in stark contrast to the promise the federal government made — over a century ago — to actively manage our national forests and pay a quarter of the revenues from timber harvests to counties, parishes, and boroughs with forested land.”

Reach Ian Foley at Ian.foley@peninsulaclarion.com.

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