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Spending Bill Would Boost Funds For Montana Schools, Public Lands

Helena National Forest
Forest Service Northern Region (PD)
Helena National Forest.

The big federal funding bill that Congress is expected to vote on Thursday would mean some certainty on three big issues for Montana and other Western states.

The bill locks-in Secure Rural Schools Act money for up to four years, changes how wildland firefighting is funded, and allocates money to the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Secure Rural Schools Act  payments from federal government go to counties with lots of federal land, to make up for lack of property tax or timber revenue.

Senator Jon Tester explains that SRS funding began in 2010 to help timber industry-dependent communities survive as logging revenue declined.

"However, the initiative expired in 2015, and had yet to receive a re-authorization, leaving forested counties in financial limbo," Tester said.

Sen. Jon Tester
Credit U.S. Senate
Sen. Jon Tester

Re-authorization in the omnibus federal spending bill means paying for two previous years, and potentially two more in the future.

"This keeps Washington, D.C.'s promise to our forested counties," Senator Steve Daines said. "This provision makes our counties whole for the past two years. What does that mean? It's $25 million to Montana counties for schools and roads."

Senators Daines and Tester confirmed today that the omnibus funding bill also changes how wildfire fighting is paid for, ending so-called "fire borrowing" from the U.S. Forest Service budget.

"The Forest Service will now fund catastrophic wildfires the same way we do other natural disasters," Sen. Tester said. "This is a huge step forward."

Tester, a Democrat, said funding wildfires like disasters could free up as much as half of the agency's budget to address backlogs of other forest management work. Republican Senator Steve Daines echoed that.

Sen. Steve Daines.
Credit Courtesy photo
Sen. Steve Daines.

"It allows the Forest Service to use more of its funds on timber management, forest management and recreation programs, rather than fire suppression," Daines said.

The big federal spending bill also allocates money to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The LWCF is popular across party lines in Montana, where it funds public lands enhancements with revenue from offshore energy development.

The omnibus spending bill also relaxes some federal logging regulations, which Senator Daines praised as good first steps to more comprehensive changes in logging rules he says will benefit rural Montana.

Specific details on much of the omnibus bill are only just now being made public.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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