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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Loss Of Secure Rural Schools Funding Takes A Toll On Montana's Timber Counties

Truck carrying timber
Bell & Jeff (CC-BY-2.0)

Montana's timber counties recently lost lots of federal revenue. Local officials say public services are going to suffer as a result.

"It's very scary. We're pretty bare bones out here the way it is," said Mineral County Commissioner Duane Simons.

"What do we do? We've got a four-man road crew. Do you lay four guys off? Do you lay three guys off? We've got some real difficult choices ahead of us here."

He's talking about the loss of federal "Secure Rural Schools" funds. The program expired this fall and wasn't reauthorized by Congress.

SRS was intended to help support counties that used to rely on federal timber sale revenue.

Last year Montana got $21 million out of $300 million nationwide. This year Congress didn’t renew SRS. That means a lot less money. States are only getting 25 percent of total receipts from federal timber sales.
For Montana, that amounts to $2 million.

Mineral County’s Duane Simons adds, "the payment we got on the 25-percent thing now was $70,000.Then they had to rub it in your eye a little bit and they took $5,000 out of that for the sequester thing they set up a couple of years ago. So, Mineral County this year gets a total of $65,000."

Ravalli County Commissioner Jeff Burrows says he and his colleagues in the Bitterroot Valley are now facing an SRS shortfall of about $725,000.

"We've reduced the number of miles per year that we've paved just because of this funding (instability). We've been doing a lot more  patching and pothole filling than paving. It's unfortunate," Burrows says, "but right now we're trying to hold the surface together versus overlay and put on new surfaces."

Democratic Senator Jon Tester says Secure Rural Schools is a critically important program that should have been reauthorized.

"But right now there's simply not the votes to get that done. The Senate did flip and there's a lot of folks here who don't want to spend money on anything.

Asked if he was gently chalking it up to the Republican takeover, Tester said, "I don't want to play partisan politics here, I really don't, but bottom line is, we got it done when Democrats were in control. I'll also say this, Edward; I do think it will get reauthorized."

Republican Senator Steve Daines says Congress must renew SRS. In a written comment he says “the federal government's failure to actively manage our national forests has driven many of our timber communities into extreme economic uncertainty. This broken promise to Montana's counties is yet another clear sign that long-term, comprehensive reforms are needed."

Senator Tester says his Forest Jobs and Recreation proposal is that kind of reform. It would allow more cutting, but still protect wilderness.

"The state of Montana and the different groups there have worked really, really hard on the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. If we use that as a blueprint moving forward, I think we can be very, very successful working together."

Tester says he and Daines will meet next week to talk about forest management issues, but Daines this week expressed skepticism about Tester’s proposal.

Republican Congressman Ryan Zinke's office provided the following comment about SRS funding.

"I support reauthorizing the SRS funding. Economic revitalization is not a single step process though, we must also fix the greater problem of mismanaged federal land that is keeping local communities in Western Montana from responsibly managing their natural resources and growing their economies. Montana has some of the richest timber lands in the world yet the federal government has been keeping us from responsibly harvesting it. Currently, I am working on a solution to better manage our lands which will allow rural communities to build healthy economies, full of opportunity and good-paying jobs in industries that will help Montana power the national economy, like timber, mining, and energy.”

A possible alternative to programs like Secure Rural Schools is a so-called "Natural Resources Trust". That’s according to the Bozeman-based non-profit, Headwaters Economics. Policy analyst Mark Haggerty says it would be similar to Montana's Coal Tax Trust Fund.

According to Haggerty, "a natural Resources Trust would, instead of spending those receipts on an annual basis, allow those receipts to be invested to build up over time to create a permanent fund balance to benefit states and counties."

Ravalli County Commissioner Jeff Burrows says he thinks the problem is it’s too easy to derail timber sales on federal lands.

"You shouldn't be able to hold up a project with a 40-cent stamp and a letter. We have these projects that are out and somebody from Idaho or Washington or wherever can send in an objection and hold up a whole process and they can do it without any skin in the game."

Environmentalists counter by saying judges only stop timber sales that violate environmental laws in the first place.

Whatever the solution, Mineral County Commissioner, Duane Simons says western Montana's rural counties are having a hard time with less revenue coming from federal lands.

"We need it now. Not yesterday. We need it right now," Simons says. "I liken it to going cold turkey to quit chewing or quit smoking. They've taken everything away from us here. Where are we supposed to go?"

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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