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Caney Falls in Bankhead National Forest in Lawrence County. The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which provided funding for schools and roads in areas with national forests, expired Dec. 31. Lawrence will lose some $200,000 in funds if Congress doesn't agree to reauthorize the program by March.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Caney Falls in Bankhead National Forest in Lawrence County. The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which provided funding for schools and roads in areas with national forests, expired Dec. 31. Lawrence will lose some $200,000 in funds if Congress doesn't agree to reauthorize the program by March.

Lawrence faces Bankhead funds loss
Federal funding expires;
county may be out $200,000

From staff, AP reports

The expiration of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act will cost Lawrence County about $200,000 if Congress doesn't agree to reauthorize the program by March.

The federal law, which quietly expired last year, provided $385 million for schools and roads in some of the nation's most scenic and rural areas. Now, administrators in 41 states are wondering how they will keep classrooms staffed.

In all, 17 Alabama counties and their school systems could lose a significant part of $2.1 million in federal funding this year.

The Lawrence County Commission and Board of Education split funds they receive for having the Bankhead National Forest within the county's boundaries. County Administrator Linda Harvill said last year Lawrence received about $209,000.

He said the county budgeted $100,000 from the act for the Road Department in its fiscal 2007 budget. The county's overall budget is about $13 million, including $2 million for the Road Department.

"For a county our size, that would be a large blow to our Road Department," Harvill said.

Lawrence County schools Superintendent Dexter Rutherford said the potential loss of education funds is offset by the property tax increase for schools approved statewide in November. That law requires all school systems to have at least 10 mills of property taxes allocated to public education. Lawrence County previously had 9 mills devoted to schools.

"That 1-mill property tax came out to about $165,000 for the '07 calendar year. The national forest money was about $130,000," he said. "The new property tax wasn't in the budget, so we basically come out even. We didn't lose anything, but we didn't really gain anything either."

Alabama has 667,348 acres of national forest land. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the state received $2,133,840 in 2006 federal payments under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act.

"It will be painful for schools to lose that money," Craig Pouncey, finance officer for the state Department of Education, told New York Times Group newspapers in Tuscaloosa, Florence and Gadsden on Tuesday.

Under the act, counties with national forest acres have received money based on the best three-year average value of timber harvests in the 1980s. Last year, Covington County got the most with $309,331, Cherokee County the least with $3,461.

If the act is not renewed, counties will revert to funding based on the "25 percent rule." That gives counties 25 percent of logging revenue from the state's four national forests.

Alabama forest receipts were $1.1 million in 2006, which means counties would have split about $260,000 under the rule.

"It's un-American for the federal government to walk away from rural communities of America, and we're here to remind them of that commitment," said Bob Douglas, president of The National Forests Counties and Schools Coalition, which estimates more than 9 million children could be affected.

The commitment dates to 1908, when President Theodore Roosevelt struck a bargain with rural America: In exchange for allowing the creation of national forests, counties would receive 25 percent of the receipts from logging and other resource sales.

The catch? The land was off limits for development and could not be taxed by state and local governments.

For years, funding would fluctuate with the price of timber. As environmental activism and litigation over logging grew, revenue fell and the counties found themselves in a bind. Recognizing the stress these market fluctuations put on schools, Congress offered a short-term solution, the six-year funding plan that expired in December.

But now, with budget deficits created by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's difficult to gain support for solutions the Forest Service is recommending, said Mark Ray, undersecretary of natural resources for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

One Forest Service proposal that remains a possible source of revenue is the sale of 170,000 isolated tracts of national forest lands, Ray said. So far, though, Congress has been unable to agree how the program should be funded.

Bankhead National Forest district ranger Glenn Gaines said officials identified 900 acres of the forest for potential sale in President Bush's proposed 2007 budget. He said the proposal was not approved at that time but could become an issue later.

"There were 900 acres initially identified, but we don't know where that stands right now," he said.

The proposed areas involved land along the east side of Winston County near Smith Lake and about 40 acres near Haleyville and Mount Hope, said Gaines.

If funding for the program is approved, Ray recommends a five-year reauthorization with declining payments in each of the years. The agency also recommends targeting those counties that have the greatest needs.

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., has introduced a bill calling for reauthorization of the Community Self-Determination Act through fiscal 2013. West Virginia Reps. Nick Rahall, a Democrat, and Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, are among the 86 co-sponsors, as is Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham. But that bill doesn't provide for funding.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced a bill in the Senate to continue the program.

The legislation has been referred to the House's committees on agriculture and natural resources.

Copyright 2005 THE DECATUR DAILY. All rights reserved.
AP contributed to this report.

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