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SRS Funding Bill Could Bring Relief To Montana Timber Counties

Weyerhaeuser closed its lumber and plywood mills in Columbia Falls last week.
Eric Whitney

Montana's U.S. senators are getting behind a new bill they say will help Montana's most rural counties round-out their budgets.

Mineral County Commissioner Duane Simons says communities like his are reeling after Congress failed to renew the Secure Rural Schools Act last fall.

"I mean, we'll just have to cut back on services and start looking at other cuts that we can do anywhere that we can because that's a tremendous shock to us. It's unbelievable."

The act helped support counties that used to rely on revenue from federal timber sales. Because states are now only getting a quarter of total receipts from those sales, Montana's share plummeted this year.

"It puts us is a real tough spot," said Jeff Burrows, a Ravalli County Commissioner. "Hopefully we'll get enough lobbying back in D.C. and they'll see the impacts to counties and they will move forward with funding it."

That was almost two weeks ago.

Now Montana's senators are supporting a new bill to revive Secure Rural Schools (SRS) funding. Democrat Jon Tester, is co-author of the bill. It would fund SRS for three years at 2011 levels. That's about $23 million for Montana.

The bill also permanently funds the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program. Those payments are made to 55 Montana counties with federal lands that aren't taxable by local governments. They are fully funded this fiscal year, but future funding isn't guaranteed.

According to Sen. Tester, "all but one county gets Payment In Lieu of Taxes dollars, so it's very, very important. This make it permanent. It makes it predictable so that counties can budget off of those numbers."

Montana counties have received about $27 million annually in those payments.

The bill to restore funding is co-sponsored by five other Senate Democrats and two Idaho Republicans.

Montana Senator Steve Daines said this week he supports the bill. At a timber management meeting he called in Columbia Falls Tuesday, the Republican said re-authorizing Secure Rural Schools should only be a stopgap measure to cover for years of lousy forest management policy.

"The way to remove that uncertainty is to bring back the timber industry in Montana; bring back the jobs and the tax revenues to support our school and infrastructures in our communities," Daines said.

Matthew Koehler says it's not that simple. Koehler runs The Wildwest Institute, a Missoula-based environmental group. He says the timber market still hasn’t rebounded from the 2008 recession. And he says timber companies were given the right to log to 46 million acres of national forest lands nationwide in the latest Farm Bill,  including 5 million acres here in Montana.

"[The Forest Service] was authorized to do the work, but they weren't appropriated any funding from Congress to do the work."

Koehler says politicians don't need to start planning additional logging projects on top of this Farm Bill provision.

"Right now the Forest Service has a $10 billion maintenance backlog on its road system. It has a third-of-a billion-dollar maintenance [backlog] for the existing trail system. So when we want to talk jobs in rural communities, instead of further undermining our nation's environmental laws, gutting endangered species protections, why doesn't Congress just fund the agency to do it's job?" Koehler wonders.

Montana’s senators say it’s not just lack of funding holding up timber sales under the Farm Bill. They say mounting wildfire fighting costs and lawsuits from environmental groups are holding up timber sales.

"There would be funding for it," Tester said.

"Unfortunately, every logging sale in Montana right now is under litigation. Every one of them," Tester claimed. "That costs money to fight that litigation. It takes money away from things like forest management. So, on the one hand, he's right. On the other hand, he's part of the problem." [Update: Sen. Tester: Lawsuit Claim An 'Error']

The bill to restore Secure Rural Schools funding and stabilize federal Payments in Lieu of Taxes funding was just introduced this week.

Senator Steve Daines this week is holding meetings in Montana aimed at getting a forest management reform package on President Obama's desk this year that would allow significantly more logging.

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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