More than ever, schools need forest service money

op frBy Brent Martin • Guest Columnist

When the 1911 Weeks Act was passed, allowing the federal government to purchase land and create a national forest system in the eastern United States, an agreement was established between the federal government and rural counties where those lands were purchased. This agreement allowed counties where national forests were created to share 25 percent of the revenues derived from timber harvests on the newly-designated national forest lands, revenue which the counties came to rely on to fund rural schools and services. When timber prices and harvest volumes both drastically declined in the 1990s, so did the monies generated by the revenue sharing agreement, and many counties found themselves facing a fiscal crisis.

Congress responded by creating the bipartisan Secure Rural Schools Act in 2000 that guaranteed an annual payment that was de-linked from resource extraction, giving the counties funding regardless of how much timber was cut on the local national forest. The act was a first attempt to help counties transition to a more diverse economic base in the face of declining timber production to take advantage of changing economic opportunities that related to recreation, restoration, and conservation. For Western North Carolina, this represents over $10 million in payments to counties since the act’s renewal in 2008, with the counties receiving the highest payments being Cherokee, Graham and Macon. For these three counties, each has received around $250,000 annually to fund their respective school systems as well as to fund community-approved projects on public lands.

Though this may not seem a huge amount given the size of most county school budgets, it is nonetheless significant given that our state school budget has been cut $1.7 billion in the last two years. With the expiration of the Secure Rural Schools Act coming up this year, rural schools are now again faced with the possibility of yet another financial hit.

On Jan. 15, the U.S. Forest Service announced the release of 2012 funds for all counties nationwide, with the amount totaling $323 million dollars. North Carolina’s allocation was $1.9 million, with the great majority of that going to the rural counties of Western North Carolina.   These funds were part of a one-year reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools program, which was extended last July and which will expire in mid-2013. Because of the current federal budget crisis, Congress has been considering alternate funding sources from the payments out of the federal treasury provided by Secure Rural Schools, but finding new funding sources in an age of tremendous fiscal shortfalls that do not jeopardize our clean water, wildlife, and public lands is a challenge. In the short term, Congress can create breathing room for communities that need these funds through an emergency extension and reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools program. A long-term solution can then, hopefully, be crafted and adopted with bipartisan support from Congress as well as the local and national stakeholders that the Secure Rural Schools Act has enjoyed support for over a decade.

The immediate need in our rural communities for these funds and the risk of failing to extend a proven program is simply too great to delay any longer. Write Congressman Mark Meadows and urge him to reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools Act.

(Brent Martin is the Southern Appalachian Regional Director for The Wilderness Society in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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