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California and the West

Legislation Changes School Funds-Timber Sales Relationship

Finances: California, Oregon will benefit most from formula that guarantees counties strong support regardless of logging activity.

October 23, 2000|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Counties in California's forested northern reaches, where stagnant economies have given people little to cheer about in recent years, are celebrating an unaccustomed piece of good news.

Congress gave final approval this month to legislation changing a nearly century-old formula that ties together school funding and federal timber sales in rural counties that have large tracts of national forest land.

Since 1908, the counties have received 25% of local federal timber sales receipts to make up for the lack of tax income from the forests.

A boon to the counties when federal logging was at its peak, the system became a bane as timber harvests fell in the 1990s because of environmental concerns.

Northern California counties such as Alpine and Plumas saw their road and school budgets wither. School districts were forced to drop teaching positions, turn to community fund-raising to keep sports programs afloat and cut back maintenance.

The bill, backed by the Clinton administration, guarantees rural counties a minimum level of funding for six years, regardless of logging levels. In the meantime, a long-term solution will be developed.

"We're very, very happy" with the bill, said James Parsons, superintendent of the Alpine County Unified School District. "We're already thinking about programs we can restore."

The bill would more than double the annual payments currently given to 800 counties across the country, to roughly $470 million.

Oregon and California are the biggest beneficiaries. Oregon counties are due to collect an extra $71.5 million a year over current levels. California counties with timber operations in national forests will receive an additional $35 million, for a total of $65 million annually.

The final legislation took the form of a compromise among the Clinton administration, environmentalists and a coalition of county government, education and timber interests.

Arguing that the connection between school funding and timber cutting promoted harmful logging levels, environmentalists wanted to sever the tie. County governments, accustomed to the economic benefits of the industry, wanted to retain a link.

In the end, the bill stipulated that money from timber receipts would continue to go to counties, but that the federal government would make up any shortfall if the sales weren't equal to the average of the highest three timber payments during the last 15 years.

That will return the county funding to some of its highest levels.

"The condition of our schools and our roads should not be dependent on the amount of timber harvested from year to year," said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, who oversees the forest service.

The bill also sets aside 15% to 20% of the overall federal payments for locally approved forest projects such as tree thinning, road maintenance and wildlife habitat restoration. Committees made up of county residents would choose the projects, which the forest service must approve.

Some environmentalists object to the projects provision.

"Some of this stuff could go to destructive projects supported by local interests," argued Michael Francis, director of the National Forest Program for the Wilderness Society.

Citing the same concerns, Steve Holmer of the American Lands Alliance called the legislation "kind of a mixed bag from the environmental community's perspective."

Bob Douglas, Tehama County school superintendent and president of the National Forest, Counties and Schools Coalition, said the local projects were crucial to boosting rural economies that have suffered under the logging cutbacks.

"We hope those projects on the federal forest lands will employ a number of forest families," he said.

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