Supporters of the bill - namely Republicans in the House Natural Resources Committee and groups representing counties and the timber industry - have applauded the proposal as a roadmap for better forest management and sustainable local revenue. The Federal Forests County Revenue, Schools and Jobs Act of 2012 passed the House Natural Resources Committee 26-17 earlier this month; it has not yet been scheduled for a full House vote.
Critics of the bill say it would weaken environmental protections and require unsustainable - and even unattainable - timber harvests.
"Passage of this legislation would seriously jeopardize the clean water, recreation and other important environmental values of maybe not all the national forests, but most of the national forests," said Mike Anderson, senior resource analyst with The Wilderness Society. "It would hugely undermine most of the reforms of the past two decades."
The bill, by U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., comes as lawmakers in the Senate and House are working to extend the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, a program that's paid rural counties for the loss of logging in tax-exempt federal forests. The program, which expired last year, has paid 38 California counties $678 million since 2001, with roads departments and schools receiving most of the funds.
Hastings' bill would provide two-year transition payments and then replace the program with a trust for rural counties and schools. The trust would pay counties and schools 65 percent of annual revenue generated through federally approved forest projects. Those projects could include timber sales and permits for grazing, special land use and recreation.
"This will provide a stable revenue stream for counties and schools, create new jobs, strengthen rural economies, promote healthier forests, reduce the risk of wildfires and decrease our reliance on foreign counties for timber and paper goods," Hastings said in a statement [PDF].
An economic analysis [PDF] of the legislation, however, found that the proposal might not work because it sets annual revenue requirements for forests based on their average receipts from 1980 and 2000.
Timber sales would need to increase an average of 1,449 percent nationwide and 4,294 percent in California over 2010 levels to achieve the bill's revenue requirements, according to Mark Haggerty, research economist at Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Mont.
The recession and housing bust have caused timber prices to tumble. If prices rise, the bill's revenue requirements could be met with less timber. But a fixed target doesn't account for how the economy has changed or could change in the future, Haggerty said.
"The House bill simply doesn't work in a volatile commodity market," he said. "It's bad politics ? it's bad economics, really."
Paul Ehinger, a timber industry consultant and former lumber company executive, said more timber would not benefit counties right now.
"There'd just be a big pile of inventory in the mill yards because there's no market," he said. "I'd like to think there's a magic solution, but unfortunately, there isn't."
Read more California investigative reports at CaliforniaWatch.com.