Before it adjourned for the holidays, Congress delivered a message to hundreds of timber-dependent communities across the country that was anything but merry. By failing to reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, Congress has forced forest counties all over the country to issue layoff notices to local schools and public offices that will take effect in early 2015.
Communities in my home of Southwest Washington and across the nation were built around the forest products industry. Timber once supported tens of thousands of jobs and provided funds for local government operations through taxes on timber sales. However, in recent decades, restrictive regulations in the management of our federal forests in combination with devastatingly effective legal crusades by ideological extremists began blocking access to federal forests and choking off tax revenue. Without help to make up the shortfall in taxes, counties could no longer pay for basic, critical government services like schools and emergency responders.
Not only is this bad for rural life, it’s bad for our forests. Regulations and lawsuits have stopped responsible harvesters from removing dead, sick, and dying trees, resulting in some of the worst wildfires and bug and disease infestations these ecosystems have ever seen. And instead of resulting in the recovery of wildlife, indicator species like the spotted owl have continued to decline at 3 percent a year. The massive decay of our federal forests is a whole article by itself.
Secure Rural Schools was established in 2000 to temporarily make up for lost timber revenue in 700 counties across the U.S. Many of these counties are made up of untaxable federal and state lands and rely on Secure Rural Schools as one of the few funding sources they have left.
For example, in Skamania County, only 2 percent of the land in the entire county is available for development from which it can collect tax revenue. Once a thriving, economically secure community, last week Skamania County leadership announced plans to reduce its workforce from 65 to 25 employees in the offices of the sheriff, public defender and others.
Neither Congress nor forest communities ever wanted Secure Rural Schools to be anything more than a temporary fix. During this past session of Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives passed bipartisan legislation to necessarily extend Secure Rural School payments, but more importantly to also restore active forest management to responsible levels that would once again allow these communities to be self-sufficient. After all, these communities would jump at the chance to once again work the forests and abandon their dependence on federal assistance to keep schools open and police available.
Unfortunately, the Senate never acted on this bill and the 113th Congress came to a close without even a short-term reauthorization. Now, rural counties are entering 2015 in crisis mode.
Reauthorizing Secure Rural Schools won’t solve the root problems plaguing our federal forests. That will take more thorough legislation passed in partnership with the local communities who know them best. However, unless we renew Secure Rural Schools as one of our first actions in January 2015, we risk a future where schools shutter, police offices close, and the communities they serve face desperation.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, represents the 3rd Congressional District.