WASHINGTON — The two top members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday criticized the U.S. Forest Service’s efforts to make counties repay $18 million in already-received timber payments.
In a letter to Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell, Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said it is “unacceptable” that in addition to wanting the funds back, the agency will assess fines and penalties against cash-strapped rural counties that don’t remit payment fast enough.
Last month, the Forest Service announced that payments to rural counties in fiscal year 2012 under the Secure Rural Schools Act are subject to sequestration, the mandatory budget cuts that went into effect March 1. During a budget hearing last week, Tidwell said he regretted the need to recoup the funds, and the Forest Service is working with states and local governments to find the least painful way to return the money.
The Bureau of Land Management also distributes timber payments to 18 forested counties in Western Oregon, where it oversees the federally owned former Oregon and California Railroad Co. lands. To address the mandatory spending cuts, the BLM withheld 10 percent from its most recent payments, rather than demanding 5.1 percent back like the Forest Service.
In their letter, Chairman Wyden and ranking member Murkowski called the contradictory approaches “disturbing and puzzling.”
“The conflicting interpretations of sequestrations have brought on confusion for state and county governments that comes precisely at a time when many rural counties are struggling with shortfalls,” the letter states. “The Forest Service failed to plan for the impact of sequestration on SRS payments and rural communities should not have to pay the price for the bad planning of your agency.”
The Forest Service could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
Last year, Oregon received almost $100 million in timber payments, including $36 million from the BLM for the 18 counties of Western Oregon. Deschutes County received $1.8 million, Crook County $1.7 million and Jefferson County $570,000.
The Forest Service is seeking to recover almost $18 million nationwide, including $3.6 million from Oregon.
Congress first enacted the Secure Rural Schools program in 2000 to compensate heavily forested counties whose local economies were devastated by federal limitations placed on logging on public land. The payments, designed to grow smaller over time, were meant to help portions of local budgets, including spending on schools and roads, normally supported by the tax base until the region could develop a non-timber-based economy.
Secure Rural Schools payments are authorized under three sections. Title I payments are for schools and roads, while Title III funds are dedicated for local fire prevention efforts. Title II funds are allocated for special restoration projects, and the Forest Service holds onto those funds until specific projects are approved.
The Forest Service is focusing its efforts on recovering as much as possible from Title II funds, which would mean some counties would not have to return any of the money they have already received.
The law imposing sequestration’s mandatory cuts does not require fines and penalties, and Wyden and Murkowski urged the Forest Service to drop them.
“As many states and counties have already obligated this funding for schools, roads, emergency services and other critical functions, many will simply not be able to quickly repay these funds, if at all,” they wrote.