Guest column submitted by U.S. Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch
More than 60 percent of Idaho is federal land, a majority of which is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. With such a large footprint of federal land ownership, Idaho's counties that are home to federal forests often have an extremely limited tax base. However, these communities are still expected to provide needed services and meet an ever-increasing list of requirements, including road maintenance, emergency response, law enforcement, solid waste disposal, and education, that benefit the federal government, local families and others.
To compensate local governments for the tax-exempt status of the national forests we all enjoy, in 1908, legislation was enacted to provide for the return of a percentage of U.S. Forest Service gross receipts to the states to assist counties that are home to our national forests. Without these funds, many rural communities that neighbor national forests would be unable to fully meet school and road needs. However, in recent years, timber receipts have eroded to the point where the federal obligation to local rural communities is not met through the receipts alone.
To address the shortfall and to prevent the loss of essential county schools and roads infrastructure, in 2000, Congress enacted the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act. This law has provided assistance, known as county payments, to communitieswhose regular Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management receipt-sharing payments have declined significantly. This assistance has been critical to maintaining needed services for students and families in Idaho communities. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Idaho received a total of $27,404,335.78 in fiscal year 2011. Idaho County received the largest county portion at $7,693,842.
This law has also enabled locally-driven forest improvement projects. The Resource Advisory Committees, or RACS, provided for through this law, have created valuable partnerships in carrying out improvement projects on our public lands. These projects have included habitat and watershed restoration, reforestation, fuels reduction, road maintenance, campground and trail enhancements, and noxious weed eradication. As increased public demands are placed on our nation's natural resources, RACs have provided the necessary cooperation to help resolve natural resources challenges.
Additionally, Payments In Lieu of Taxes, known as PILT payments, have augmented county payments to provide local governments with the means of offsetting part of the tax revenues lost because of tax-exempt federal land in their jurisdictions. PILT has supported community services such as firefighting and police protection in rural communities. Through PILT, the federal government partners with counties to provide public lands stewardship and community services.
Congress has extended and funded the Secure Rural Schools program and provided full funding for PILT multiple times. This assistance is again due for renewal. Thus, we cosponsored and supported a bipartisan amendment offered by Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana) to the highway bill that would provide a one-year extension of these programs. The recent 82 to 16 vote to include county payments in the transportation legislation is a step in the right direction and a strong indication that senators approve continuing the payments to counties where federal land ownership limits the local tax base.
The assistance provided through these programs iscritical for counties to operate local schools, provide law enforcement and maintain roads, bridges and other projects. We are working with our colleagues to develop a longer-term solution that would ideally include the responsible growth of timber production. This would ultimately provide a more predictable, self-sustaining approach to funding our rural schools and counties.
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