Reader's View: Rural idaho communities

Labrador: Bill holds out hope to restore health in forests, economy

September 26, 2013 

Last week, the House passed legislation I’ve been championing for the past three years to empower Idaho’s rural communities by allowing greater state involvement in managing our forests.

The bill we passed — H.R. 1526, the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act — incorporates an earlier bill I introduced, H.R.1294, the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act. What my bill does is transfer the management of about 200,000 acres of federal land in Idaho to the state as a trust. By enabling the state to manage this land in accordance with state forest statutes, such as the Idaho Forestry Act, we will experience greater economic growth and healthier, more vibrant forests. Now, with the House’s passage of H.R. 1526 we are one step closer to making that a reality.

The concept for my bill sprang from my involvement with a bipartisan group of county commissioners in Idaho. Their goal, which was the same as mine, was simple: To rejuvenate the economy in Idaho’s rural communities. Those communities have been struggling for decades. That’s because their greatest asset — their timber — is being held captive by the federal government. Washington bureaucrats and environmental organizations have crippled the timber industry through overregulation and litigation. Their policies have caused an 80 percent decline in timber harvests over the past 30 years. Not only has unemployment skyrocketed, but counties that depend on timber receipts to fund schools, roads and daily operations have become desolate and broke.

The Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program was created in 2000 to help counties fund the services they could no longer afford because of lost tax revenue. Thirty-five of 44 Idaho counties receive SRS payments, and we rank third in the country in total SRS dollars. But the program was always intended as a stopgap measure until Congress created a more permanent solution. Since day one, SRS has generated tremendous uncertainty at the county level. And now, with record deficits, the SRS model is no longer sustainable. So long as the program is tied to federal policies that prevent us from developing our own land, it prevents us from achieving a true solution. Last year, authority for the program expired.

The time has come to put our people and our land back to work. That means getting the federal government out of the way and empowering Idaho’s forest communities to manage their own land. By re-establishing local control over some of our state’s most valuable resources, we will bolster the economy and create much-needed jobs. That, in turn, will create the additional tax revenues that are needed to improve schools, roads and local services. Last but not least, we will also improve forest health and reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires.

When it comes to preventing wildfires, the difference between the stewardship of state lands in Idaho and the stewardship in adjoining federal lands is astonishing. Last year, 1.5 million acres burned in Idaho during a record fire year. Of those acres, only 4,674 were on state managed lands. The remainder was on federally managed lands. There is no question in my mind that putting more federal land under state control will result in healthier forests and less-damaging wildfires. I’m excited that the bill we passed last week will advance that process tremendously.

The legislation we passed is a huge win for Idaho’s rural communities, and I’m hopeful the Senate will pass it too. On these types of issues, as with so many others, the government closest to the people governs best. By putting the people of Idaho in charge, and reducing our dependence on Washington, we will create a better and brighter future for our people.

Raul Labrador, Republican, represents Idaho’s 1st Congressional District

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