Rural schools, roads, projects lose in sequestration cuts

By ERIC FREEDMAN

Capital News Service

LANSING – Michigan is losing $229,491 in federal timber payments this year because of the budget sequestration – money that would otherwise be used for rural roads and schools, environmental work in the state’s three national forests and county wildfire projects.

It represents a 5.1 percent cut in what Michigan would normally receive as its share of revenue from timber sales from Ottawa and Hiawatha national forests in the Upper Peninsula and Huron-Manistee National Forest in the northern Lower Peninsula. Combined, they cover about 2.8 million acres.

The National Association of Counties and other organizations are trying to persuade the Forest Service to restore the money.
What’s known as the Secure Rural Schools Program provides money for communities “where national forestland is located because they’re logging those areas and the counties would see no revenue from that,” said Ben Bodkin, legislative director of the Michigan Association of Counties.

Federal land is exempt from local property taxes. The value of timber sales varies from year to year.

Bodkin said, “Counties have been struggling in Michigan for a decade at least in the midst of revenue sharing cuts, increased spending on foster care and everything we do to make the wheels of government run.

“Cuts are cuts,” he said, adding that $229,491 may not be a lot of money for the state as a whole but it is important to rural counties that have “much of their land tied up off the tax rolls.”

In a letter earlier this year to Gov. Rick Snyder, U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell said, “We regret having to take this action, but must ensure that the Forest Service meets the requirements” of the sequestration law.

The total national sequestered amount is about $17.9 million. In neighboring states, Wisconsin is losing $120,159, while Indiana is losing $13,719 and Ohio $13,686, Forest Service figures show. Oregon has the biggest loss at $3,951,295.

In Michigan, the state receives the money and the Department of Natural Resources distributes it to eligible counties.

Under federal law, timber payments must be spent on county and national forest projects in three categories:

Some timber revenue is allocated for rural schools and roads. Another portion reimburses counties for emergency and search-and-rescue services they provide on national forestland and also pays to prepare wildfire protection plans and for the Firewise Communities Program that helps local residents reduce the risks of wildfires.

The rest goes to locally recommended projects on national forestland that “enhance forest ecosystems, restore and improve the health of the land and water quality, and protect, restore and enhance fish and wildlife habitat,” Tidwell said in testimony to a U.S. Senate committee. As examples, he cited re-establishing native species, trail maintenance and watershed and stream restoration.

Tidwell said, “These projects provide employment in rural communities and an opportunity for local citizens to advise the Forest Service on projects of mutual interest that benefit the environment and the economy.”

Ryan Yates, the associate legislative director at the National Association of Counties in Washington, said counties in Michigan and elsewhere have two major concerns.

The first is the association’s argument that the sequester shouldn’t apply because the Forest Service reduced payments for timber sales in the 2012 fiscal year although the sequester law didn’t kick in until the 2013 fiscal year.

The second concern is that Congress has not yet reauthorized an extension of the entire Secure Rural Schools Program, Yates said.

“There’s a national effort to continue funding this critical program for our forest counties,” he said.

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