The Secure Rural School and Community Self-determination Act was enacted in 2000. It provided counties with national forest land money to make up for the revenue lost from declining logging revenues. Schools had traditionally received 25 percent of the money from timber sales in the national forests. As the public clamored for less logging in the forests and more recreational uses, revenues to counties declined significantly. This act provided a federal payment to compensate for the lost logging dollars.
The law expired in September, and the Bush appointees proposed selling off about 309,000 acres in more than 40 states. The money would be used to make the payments to the affected counties, providing a short-term method of financing this act but leaving the country with less land in its national forests.
Due to several factors — the November elections no doubt played a part — Congress did not come up with a good way to help the rural counties who depend on this money. Unless the new Congress develops its own plans, the Bush Administrations’s 2007 budget recommends that more than 6,000 acres of national forest land in Western North Carolina be sold off. Almost half is in Macon County.
The compensation to counties is extremely important and represents a fair trade. Citizens from throughout the country come to this region to enjoy the wilderness. It provides horseback riders, hunters, anglers, hikers, campers and others a respite. Since it is public land, however, the counties receive a minuscule payment in lieu of taxes from the federal government. In reality, the taxpayers in these Western North Carolina counties with national forest land are paying higher property tax rates because of the thousands of acres tied up in public lands.
This is why a percentage of the timber sales money went to the counties, it’s why the payment in lieu of tax program was developed, and it’s why the Secure Rural Schools Act was passed in the first place.
The sale of the 309,000 acres is intended as a way to continue to fund the Act. But all we’re talking about is $100 million, a small amount in the larger scheme of the federal budget. The problem is that this administration has run up ever-increasing deficits to pay for the Iraq war and to finance tax cuts for the rich, and so it is looking for a quick fix to help meet its obligations.
The reason this is important now is that if Congress does not act to renew the act when it convenes in January, the payments to rural counties will stop. Western North Carolina’s recently elected freshman congressman Heath Shuler made preserving these payments to counties an early campaign issue. We hope he gets to Washington and starts work on keeping this program in place.
Congress needs to simply renew the act without selling off national forest land that is everyone’s heritage. Instead, we need to protect national forest land that increasingly will be valuable for its intrinsic rather than its market value. Keep the land and fund the program.