Forest counties are bracing for drastic budget cuts, as revenue-sharing payments derived from federal forest lands currently being distributed are reduced by more than 80 percent over last year. Because Congress failed to reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program for FY16, forest revenue-sharing to counties reverts to a century-old law that entitles them to 25 percent of revenues from national forests.
Federal policies reducing revenue-generating activities on federal forests have made “25 percent payments” unequal, with counties paying for essential infrastructure and services for federal public lands. The federal funding cuts will have a direct impact on local services provided to millions of residents and public lands visitors alike.
NACo has urged lawmakers to reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools program and fulfill the federal government’s responsibility to counties with federally owned and managed forests.
“We urge Congress to renew its longstanding commitment to forest counties by reauthorizing Secure Rural Schools payments that support local services and pursuing long-term active forest management reform,” said NACo Executive Director Matt Chase. “Counties and school districts require a strong partnership with the federal government to invest in services our residents and visitors to federal public lands rely on every day.”
In FY15, the SRS program provided $278 million to more than 700 rural counties, parishes and boroughs and 4,000 school districts. The program ensures that students receive essential education services and supports county road maintenance, conservation projects, search and rescue missions and fire prevention programs, among many other essential services.
Since 1908, the Forest Service has shared 25 percent of timber revenues with rural counties whose ability to generate revenue to fund critical local services is limited by the presence of tax-exempt federal forest land. Current 25 percent payments from forest revenues are no longer adequate to support the services forest counties are legally required provide on and around the federal lands.
“Without critical SRS funds, counties and school districts nationwide are facing dramatic budgetary shortfalls, and some have been forced to halt infrastructure projects, terminate employees, cancel teacher contracts and reduce numerous other services,” Chase said. “This program is vital to the well-being of our communities, and we call on Congress to act now.”