Bill renewing Secure Rural Schools Act for five years with 5% decline in payments each year to be introduced in U.S. Senate next week

GRANTS PASS, Oregon , October 6, 2011 () – A bill renewing the federal payments that have sent billions of dollars to rural timber counties hurt by declining logging on national forests will be introduced in the U.S. Senate next week.

But prospects for the program remain uncertain in the Republican-controlled House, with its tough budget rules. The Secure Rural Schools Act has sent more than $5 billion to 700 counties in 41 states since it was enacted in 2000.

The program's renewal will be introduced next week with bipartisan backing by Energy Committee Chairman Sen. Jeff Bingaman, said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. It calls for renewal for five more years, with payments declining by 5 percent each year.

"While passage of this legislation is not guaranteed, gaining Chairman Bingaman's support is an important step in our effort to get the job done," Wyden said in a statement. "Part of that effort includes education our colleagues in Congress on the unique challenges facing a state where the federal government owns more than 50 percent of the land."

All five Democrats from Oregon, as well as Republican Rep. Greg Walden, agreed to back the measure, along with Gov. John Kitzhaber. The Democrat governor went to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress, Wyden's statement said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Montana Democrats Sen. Max Baucus and Sen. Jon Tester also issued statements backing the bill.

Walden would like to put people back to work with increased logging on national forests, rather than continuing a handout, but there is widespread support for bridge funding, said his spokesman, Andrew Whelan. The budget climate remains difficult, he said.

The Forest Service has sent 25 percent of logging revenues to rural schools and counties since the early 1900s, and Oregon counties get 50 percent of timber revenues from so-called O&C lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Timber counties in Washington, Oregon and Northern California started getting safety net payments in the 1990s to make up for 80 percent cutbacks in logging on national forests to protect the northern spotted owl and salmon. Once the last payments go out this winter, the program will have generated $5.7 billion for counties—$4.5 billion from the Forest Service and the rest from BLM.

Counties in rural Western Oregon in particular say renewing the money is crucial to funding law enforcement, schools and other services.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said renewing the funding would give counties time for a more permanent solution to be worked out. He has proposed splitting the O&C Lands in western Oregon, with one part managed for fish and wildlife habitat, and the other leased for timber production.

Headwaters Economics in Montana has analyzed a House Resources Committee proposal to increase logging on national forests by easing environmental protections. It concluded that at current log prices, historically low because of the housing crash, the U.S. Forest Service would have to increase timber production more than 200 percent above the average for the past 30 years.

At current administrative costs, the Forest Service would have to spend $2.2 billion a year planning timber sales to generate the $378 million per year that has been going to counties.

"It's hard to imagine even under the most favorable market conditions, let alone the current market conditions," said Headwaters economist Chris Mehl.

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