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News Education Schools lose if federal forest land act expires

School officials are not the only ones fighting for the rauthorization of the forest land act. Conservation groups are fearful pressure to increase timber harvests will trump ecological concerns if the program expires and counties once again have to rely on a percentage of timber receipts.Macon County Schools stand to lose if federal forest land act expires

Macon County schools, along with many other school districts in counties around the country that have substantial federal lands within their boundaries, stand to lose crucial revenue if a federal act is allowed to expire at the end of the year. Next week, the district will host a meeting of officials from school districts all around the region to inform them of the potential loss of funds if the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act is left to expire.

Since 1911, states have received funds from the federal government to offset the loss of property tax revenues which occurred with the establishment of National Forest lands within their borders. For decades, this reimbursement was set as 25 percent of all receipts from commercial activities on these federal lands, including timber sales.

According to Joel Yelverton, a consultant for the Partnership for Rural America Campaign, the 25-percent arrangement worked very well for many years, supporting education, infrastructure and economic development in rural communities which needed it the most. However, in the late 1980s and 1990s, the country saw a tremendous decline in timber harvests, due in part to the increased emphasis on conservation, endangered species protection and ecosystem restoration.

To remedy the situation, Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (SRSCA) of 2000, an act which subsidized payments to counties and took into consideration historic payment levels before the decline. SRSCA is set to expire this year, and unless legislators act to reauthorize the program, many rural counties could see huge losses in revenue.

“This would impact a lot of the rural areas in our country that can least afford to take the hit,” Yelverton remarked.

The Partnership for Rural America Campaign estimates that if SRSCA were to expire, it would mean a loss of nearly $440 million and 11,000 jobs nationwide. Funding to North Carolina would decline by 82 percent, from $2.54 million in 2008 to $446,374 in 2012—a loss of almost $2.1 million.

As Macon County schools superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman notes, the bulk of funds counties receive from the federal payments goes to support public education. If SRSCA is not reauthorized, says Brigman, Macon County schools could lose as much as $200,000 in annual funding at a time when the county can scarcely afford to spare another cent without cutting teacher positions.

Though the economy has impacted payment levels in recent years, in 2010 Macon County still received an allotment of $237,885 out of which $202,202 (or 85 percent) went to the school district. According to an estimate by the Partnership for Rural America Campaign, the total county allotment would drop below $60,000 if SRSCA is not renewed.

Next week, on Monday, Aug. 8, the Macon County Board of Education will host a meeting for superintendents and representatives of all regional school districts which stand to be impacted by the act’s expiration. Brigman, who met Yelverton last month at a similar meeting in Young Harris, Ga., has invited him to present information on SRSCA and answer questions about the campaign to see it reauthorized.

“We want to make sure that this formula stays intact and keeps generating the revenue that we so desperately need for our school system,” said Brigman.

On July 14, an oversight hearing was held in Washington, D.C., at which testimony was received about forest management options and the need for reauthorization of SRSCA. According to Yelverton, language for a reauthorization bill, to be introduced either before the August recess or early after Congress returns in September, is currently being drafted.

Conservation groups for reauthorization

Besides local school districts, reauthorization of the program is also supported by conservation groups who fear a return to payments based solely on timber sales which could require a certain level of timber harvesting to maintain funding levels.

“The Secure Rural Schools Act needs to be reauthorized,” said Hugh Irwin, programs director and conservation planner of the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition. Keeping SRSCA in place helps to balance the incentive to increase timber harvests with ecological concerns, Irwin says. “The need for ecological restoration should be the criteria rather than maximizing timber receipts,” he explained.

Still, while there seems to be consensus on the need for reauthorization, the comments of conservationists like Irwin underscore the competing interests involved in the issue.

The Partnership for Rural America Campaign promotes the development of “active” forest management plans that “protect the ecological values of our forests while promoting economic activity.” “If they upped the harvest, then there would not be as much of a need for money through this act,” said Yelverton, voicing the perspective of many who would like to see logging increase for economic reasons.

But according to Irwin, the level of harvesting that the country saw up through the 1980s, particularly the clear-cutting of oldgrowth forests in the Pacific Northwest, was totally unsustainable. While Irwin agrees that some logging can be beneficial, he still is wary of any policy that puts receipts before restoration.

“There’s actually a lot of national forest in the Southeast that could benefit from some form of timber harvest aimed at ecological restoration,” said Irwin, citing both the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests as examples, “but a lot of that requires big investments which would generate limited revenue in return. ... In the context of maintaining county payments, my concern would be that it would focus on the most profitable stands, which tends to be the remnant old growth in our forests.”

Joshua Kelly, the public lands field biologist for the Western North Carolina Alliance, said his organization supports reauthorization for similar reasons. But Kelly also noted that in the current economy, increasing the timber harvest, whether through restoration-based forest management methods or not, is not really an alternative. “I don’t think it’s either/or; I think it's all or nothing,” said Kelly.

So far, it seems federal legislators are in agreement. Congressman Heath Shuler, the Democratic representative of North Carolina’s 11th District, says he has always supported authorization and full funding for the SRSCA program and will vote for reauthorization of the act before it expires this year.

“Many of Western North Carolina’s most cash-strapped counties rely on SRSCA funding to run their schools and maintain their roads,” said Shuler last week. “Failure to reauthorize the program would be extremely detrimental to the budgets of these local counties.”

According to Shuler, the program has broad support on both sides of the aisle, even now during a time of fiscal austerity in Washington. “Many Members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, in the House and Senate, are working to ensure this critical legislation is reauthorized,” he said hopefully.

“This is an important issue,” said Brian McClellan, chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners. While the board has yet to have a formal discussion on the issue, McClellan said that he expects the board to take up the issue at its regular August meeting and will possibly consider a resolution expressing the county’s desire to see the program reauthorized.

To McClellan, reauthorization of the act is simply a matter of fairness to the nation's counties with federal lands. “The federal government isn’t going to pay us property taxes, so this is a way to make that fair,” he said.

McClellan noted that failure to reauthorize the act would affect counties all over Western North Carolina, but with national forest lands taking up nearly half of its land area (46.1 percent), Macon County would be disproportionately impacted.

The regional meeting of school districts to discuss reauthorization is scheduled for 1 p.m., Monday, Aug. 8, at the Macon County Schools Central Offices.

Macon County Schools stand to lose if federal forest land act expires

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