Rocky Barker: Rural areas could lose under timber quota bill

rbarker@idahostatesman.comSeptember 30, 2013 

A ponderosa pine in the Boise National Forest just south of Idaho City.

IDAHO STATESMAN FILE

CORRECTION: This article originally referred to the wrong unit of measurement for timber sales in the late 1980s. The correct unit is per thousand board feet of timber.

House Resources Chairman Doc Hastings’ sold his “Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act” as a way to provide funds for rural schools and roads.

His goal was to replace the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act payments that counties and schools get now. This program, put together by Oregon Democratic Sen Ron Wyden and Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig, was designed to make up for the losses of revenues to counties when the timber harvest dropped from its high of 12 billion board feet nationally in the late 1980s to 2.5 billion, which continues to today.

Hastings’ idea is that if we could just mandate the Forest Service to get out the cut, the rural counties funding problems would be solved. He’d give 25 percent of all timber receipts to the counties for roads and schools. The Congressional Budget Office even said his bill, which would mandate a harvest of 6 billion, would return $269 million annually from the 193 million acres of national forest land.

That number itself seems pretty sketchy, considering the volatility of timber prices. In the late 1980s timber was selling for as much as $300 for a thousand board feet of timber from the Clearwater National Forest.

In 2012 it sold for about $79, up from $54 in 2009, according to Headwaters Economics. It takes about 15,000 board feet to build a house these days.

The Forest Service still needs people and money to put timber up for sale. Then there is road maintenance and other costs even with the almost-absent environmental review the Hastings’ bill proposes. Forest Service rangers tell me they have timber projects that already have completed the review and gotten past the legal appeal stage. But they can’t move forward because they don’t have any money in their budget.

But for argument’s sake let’s say Hastings bill passes and the Forest Service gets the money it needs to cut 6 billion board feet annually. It’s 2023 and the counties and rural schools ought to be rolling in money, since they’ll get 25 percent of the proceeds and payments in lieu of taxes to boot right?

Actually no, said Mark Haggerty of Headwaters Economics, the group headed by Ray Rasker, a recent speaker at the Boise City Club. They analyze the economics of the West for clients that include environmental groups.

Haggerty found that rural counties that get the Secure Rural Schools funding today will get 25 percent less money, based on the 2012 price of timber and the CBO numbers. Idaho’s 35 Secure Rural School counties would get $15 million less in 2023 under Hastings bill than under Secure Rural Schools, which Congress recently approved for another year.

Sure, the price of timber could rise again and the counties could get more money. But the price also could drop and they get less.

Do rural counties want to bank their school funding on such a volatile and unstable funding source? Haggerty asks.

Some counties would come out ahead in 2023 under Hastings’ bill. Clearwater and Shoshone counties each would get more. Others would get less.

Idaho County would get more than $5 million less. Lemhi, Valley and Custer County all would get in the neighborhood of $2 million less.

Why? Because the Secure Rural Schools formula and the formula for payments in lieu of taxes give these counties more money based on the amount of federal acres and their poverty rates.

So what should happen?

Haggerty wants Congress to find another source for Secure Rural Schools permanently, then deal with the timber harvest issue separately.

In the Senate, Wyden, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, announced with Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch this summer that they are working on ideas to empower collaborative groups and the Forest Service to get funding and authority to approve logging and restoration projects. No one has released even an outline of a plan that might get people talking the way Hastings’ bill did.

But if they can find a way that would clear the legal and administrative obstacles for collaborative projects and then ensure a stable funding source, they could offer a path forward both sides would accept.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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