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Rural schools struggle as timber payments end

February 10, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
It's been more than 30 years since Kermith Walters hauled logs of pine and fir through the mountains of Siskiyou County. He says he left it behind when the habitat of a dark brown, white-speckled bird became a matter of federal law.

Since 1990, when the northern spotted owl was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, millions of acres of old-growth forest have been closed to logging, stripping rural communities throughout the Pacific Northwest of their primary economy.

But even now, as the county's superintendent of schools, Walters' most pressing concern is still rooted in timber.

Over the past decade, a federal program that's based on historic timber revenue has cushioned the loss of logging in forest communities. It's provided nearly $3.8 billion for schools and roads in more than 700 counties in 42 states, including 32 in California. With nearly 21 million acres of national forest within its borders, California is among the biggest beneficiaries of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act. The state has received more than $573.7 million for county schools and roads since the program's inception.

But the act expired in September, and the program's final dollars will run out by the end of this year. In California, the end of Secure Rural Schools leaves a $33.4 million hole in county roads and schools budgets. When the money's gone, officials say, weathered roads will go unrepaired, and schools will have more crowded classrooms, fewer programs and fewer teachers.

Lawmakers in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have introduced legislation to extend the program another five years, albeit at lower payments. Reauthorization bills have bipartisan support from 32 senators, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer in California, and eight Democratic representatives, including Rep. Michael Thompson, whose district includes rural counties along California's northern coast.

But it's uncertain whether Secure Rural Schools, which was approved in 2000 and reauthorized in 2008, can win enough support a third time. House Republicans are drafting legislation that would end program payments and instead fund counties by increasing timber production in national forests.

The program is both a driver and a reflection of how Americans view public forests and the role of a natural resource - trees. And it is reigniting a long-standing debate over how rural communities should support themselves.

Walters, whose county received the state's biggest roads and schools payment last year, at $4.7 million, worries any resolution will come too late.

"The fact is the students are going to lose on this," he said.

'The train wreck ahead'

Since 1908, when the national forest system was created, the U.S. Forest Service has compensated counties with national forests in their boundaries for federal land they cannot tax. Counties received 25 percent of the agency's gross receipts, derived primarily from timber production. For years, timber receipts provided steady cash flows for infrastructure and schools, peaking at $361 million in 1989. But payments plummeted as timber harvests declined.

Secure Rural Schools was the congressional response to falling timber revenue. The act allowed counties to choose payments under the existing revenue-sharing model or through a new formula based on an average of historic timber receipts.

At its height, the program paid California more than $69 million a year. Schools and county roads departments evenly split the majority or all of the funds. The remainder is dedicated to forest stewardship, restoration and maintenance; search and rescue and emergency services; and development of wildfire protection plans.

Without the renewal of Secure Rural Schools, all counties will revert to sharing 25 percent of timber receipts - a model that for most counties will mean substantially less revenue. Of California's 39 counties with national forests, 32 will receive less in timber revenue than they would through Secure Rural Schools.

"I feel strongly that we owe it to the children in our rural schools to keep fighting for this program," Feinstein said in a statement issued to California Watch. "The key part is finding an offset to pay for it."

Under the Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and introduced in October, reauthorizing the program will cost about $1.4 billion over five years. At least one of the bill's co-sponsors, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, pledged to drop her support of the legislation and work to defeat it if there were no budget offset. New Mexico Democrat Martin Heinrich introduced a companion bill in the House in December.

Meanwhile, the House Natural Resources Committee is working on legislation that would require forest counties to generate certain annual revenues through timber sales, recreation or other land use projects.

"The federal government cannot afford to forever finance a program that was a short-term solution to a long-term problem," Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the committee, said in a statement.

The proposals "offer radically different ideas of how this should be taken care of," said Melissa White, federal affairs coordinator for the Regional Council of Rural Counties. "You can see the train wreck ahead."

If no agreement is reached by March 15 - California's deadline for schools to send preliminary layoff notices - "then the pressure is off for those folks in Congress," White said.

"We totally agree that there needs to be a broader discussion about national forest management, but what we're concerned about is that this program ends now," she said. "We're just worried we're running out of time."

The loss of Secure Rural Schools would be felt differently from one campus to the next in California; the funding is typically unrestricted money for districts. Officials say that after years of state budget cutbacks, as well as shrinking Secure Rural Schools payments, there are few places left to cut.

"You can only collapse so much before you literally collapse," said Jim French, president of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition, a group lobbying for the program's extension.

French, who is also superintendent of schools in Trinity County, anticipates school districts will cut at least 10 percent of staff if the county loses its $3.9 million allocation for roads and schools. Programs like art, music and athletics could vanish. One of the county's two school nurses, who spend as much as one-third of their time driving between two dozen far-flung campuses, would be laid off.

"If there's only one nurse, we'd only do screenings and consultations - that's all we'll be able to do," said Mary Nixon, who has been a school nurse in Trinity County for 16 years. For other medical needs, she said, "if a nurse is not available, they call 911."

For a remote school like Forks of Salmon Elementary School in Siskiyou County, Secure Rural Schools allowed the 10-student district to climb out of debt a few years ago. Today, its $10,000 allocation ensures its diesel generator-powered lights stay on and its cafeteria and supply closet remain stocked.

Without the program, said Superintendent Tina Bennett, "we would have to get really tight - 'Hello, it's your family's turn to buy toilet paper here.'"

To maintain buildings and infrastructure in the Yreka Union High School District without Secure Rural Schools means class sizes would increase, and staff and programs - most likely electives and honors classes, whose enrollments tend to be low - would be cut, said Superintendent Mark Greenfield.

"We're going to make it. We're going to get the job done," he said. "Is it going to be pretty? Absolutely not. Is it going to be right by kids? Absolutely not. We'll get done what we have to get done, not what we should get done."

'A sea of timber'

For forest counties, timber brought more than just revenue: It provided jobs that kept families working, children in schools and enrollment afloat. When the timber industry left, so did families, draining schools of much-needed attendance money.

Between 1990 and 2010, the number of workers in logging in California dropped 65 percent, to 1,800, state data shows. Related industries, including wood product manufacturing and sawmills, have seen similar declines. The state now imports about 80 percent of its wood.

"That's ridiculous," said Joe Silva, Tuolumne County's superintendent of schools. "We have the wood right here ... but we're restricting ourselves out of business."

In Siskiyou and Trinity, California's biggest timber counties, unemployment rates, not seasonally adjusted, are consistently higher than the state average - at 18.3 and 17.8 percent, respectively, compared with the state's 10.9 percent in December. K-12 enrollment in both counties has dropped 30 percent in the last 15 years.

"What we're seeing is people leaving because we don't have anything here. We don't have an economy," said Walters, the superintendent, who has lived in Siskiyou County his entire life.

There are just 29 sawmills left in California - fewer than the number in Siskiyou County alone when Walters drove a log truck.

Trinity River Lumber Co. is the last remaining sawmill in Trinity County. After a fire burned down the mill's main building in 2009, the company spent $20 million and 16 months to rebuild it, bringing hope to a county where it's the largest private employer. The company staffs 120 workers and feels a sense of loyalty to the community, said Dee Sanders, who has been the mill's general manager since it opened in 1983.

Back then, Sanders said, local forests sold far more timber than the mill used. But now, he said, "it's been a struggle to maintain log supply here, even though we're sitting in a sea of timber."

"To be truthful with you, we should never have rebuilt the mill," Sanders said. "We're sitting here with this big investment in this sawmill; we're obviously going to hold on as long as we can hold on."

To Sanders and others in forest communities, the only industry that can generate enough jobs and revenue is timber. "There's nothing else here," he said.

But the timber economy of the 1980s is not coming back, said Mark Haggerty, a research economist at Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Mont., who has studied land use in forest counties and the Secure Rural Schools program.

"You can mandate they cut as many trees as possible, but you're never going to produce the same results because the economy has changed, the market has changed," he said.

According to Haggerty's analysis, California would have needed to cut 1,041 percent more timber than it did in 2010 to generate revenue equal to its average receipts from 1980 to 2000 - the benchmark in the House Natural Resources Committee's draft proposal.

The immediate crisis of lost funding has pushed discussions about alternative forest economies by the wayside, he said.

Secure Rural Schools has funded good restoration work - healthier ecosystems and water supplies and lower fire risk - and brought together stakeholders who often have been at odds over national forest management, said Mike Anderson, a Seattle-based senior resource analyst for the Wilderness Society, which supports reauthorization of the program. The problem is, he said, "it just doesn't pay."

But by changing the formula behind Secure Rural Schools from trees to ecosystem services and stewardship, Haggerty said, public land could be transformed, along with the forest economy. Reauthorizing the program would buy enough time to craft a plan - assuming dialogue starts immediately.

"The problem with all the reauthorizations in the past is we get the reauthorization and we sit back and congratulate ourselves, and then four years later, we go, 'Oh, wait a second, time for reauthorization again, and we haven't done anything,'" he said. "That will kill the program sooner or later, if not already. We may have lost our chance to do that; we don't know. We're hoping we haven't."

Read more California investigative reports at CaliforniaWatch.com.