Senator Lisa Murkowski said the United States Forest Service needs to commit to the future of Alaska’s forest management.
Speaking on Thursday at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the U.S. Forest Service’s 2016 budget request, Murkowski was critical of the agency’s recent actions.
She said she disapproved of how Alaska’s national forests have been managed, especially in the face of dwindling Secure Rural School funds.
“I think the Forest Service has broken the federal government’s promise to actively manage our national forests,” Murkowski said in her opening statement. “And now, the failure to reauthorize Secure Rural Schools is revealing this stark reality to forested communities across the West.”
The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000 has been used to provide vital funds for schools, roads and projects in rural areas as they transition from the declining timber industry to other sources of revenue.
In 2014, more than $300 million of Secure Rural School funds were distributed to communities across the country. Alaska received $14.24 million, of which $3.89 million was allocated to communities in the Chugach Forest region, and $10.35 million went to communities in Tongass region.
Because Congress failed to reauthorize Secure Rural School payments for 2015, communities in Alaska will be given roughly $537,000 this year. That money is a result of the Payments to States 1908 Act, which provides rural communities a quarter of proceeds from timber receipts collected from national forests.
In its 2016 fiscal year budget justification, the Forest Service hopes to reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools Act, but phase it out through 2019. The proposed fiscal year 2016 payment for Secure Rural Schools is $247 million, with funding coming from mandatory appropriations, as well as supplemental funding from the treasury, according to the proposed budget.
Secure Rural Schools funds will decrease each subsequent year until 2019, when the amount will total $97 million.
Speaking to the Clarion, Murkowski said that she was frustrated with the Forest Service. She said the decrease in Secure Rural School funds has been negatively received by many of her constituents, especially since they are not permitted to harvest much of the forests.
“There has been an outcry in communities all over Alaska,” she said.
Murkowski said the Forest Service needs to be more open to harvesting Alaska’s forests.
“[The Secure Rural Schools Act] was designed to be a stopgap,” Murkowski said. “It’s not sustainable. We need to allow for increased timber harvesting.”
However, she said Forest Service restrictions are making that difficult.
“Everything we try to do on our public land, we’re being locked out,” she said. “What else are we going to do? Where else can we turn?”
Murkowski said that even using the forests for tourism revenue has proven difficult for some communities. She cited the lack of permits issued by the Forest Service for use of floatplanes in parts of the Tongass National Forest as an example of the heavy restrictions.
“The Forest Service is reducing dramatically the number of permits,” she said. “It’s all about being able to access our federal lands.”
Reach Ian Foley at Ian.firstname.lastname@example.org