During a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on May 2, Sen. Ron Wyden (D) stressed a need in rural counties for restored federal funding for county services and sustainably increased timber harvests to keep the essential services that Secure Rural Schools (SRS) has funded since Congress first authorized the program in 2000.
A statement from Wyden’s office said payments through the SRS and the County Self-Determination Act are used to fund schools, roads and law enforcement in more than 700 counties nationwide. The payments expired last year.
“Comprehensive support for rural Oregon is too urgent for this to be an either-or question,” Wyden said. “The three-legged stool of federal resources through SRS, local support and sustainably increasing the harvest has proved to be a successful equation for rural Oregon, yet the crucial federal resources have not been reauthorized for more than a year.”
Wyden said the result of that inaction has left counties in Oregon and nationwide with far too much uncertainty.
According to Wyden’s office, during the May 2 hearing, Forest Service Associate Deputy Chief Glenn Casamassa emphasized a previously-held conclusion that increasing the harvest enough to make up for the lost funding through SRS payments was unrealistic, citing earlier estimates from Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell that logging on public lands would need to increase by 600 percent in order for timber revenues to match what counties received in SRS payments.
The last SRS funds were paid to the counties in Oregon in March of 2016. Thirty-three Oregon counties received a total of $95 million in Secure Rural Schools payments. During its lifetime, the program has brought more than $3 billion to Oregon’s timber counties.
On May 3, Wyden, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D), and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D) introduced a bipartisan bill in the Senate and House to restore SRS. The bill extends payments to counties for two years. Acting Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) of Washington led the bill introductions in the Senate and House.
“Reauthorizing Secure Rural Schools is about keeping the doors open in rural Oregon and rural America,” Wyden said. “Our bipartisan coalition gives SRS the best chance for success right now, and I am going to stay at it to give struggling communities the long-term certainty they need.”
“The federal government must hold up its commitment to our timber counties,” Merkley said. “But this is only part of the challenge, which includes improved sustainable harvests and living-wage jobs.”
“Rural counties in Oregon and throughout the country count on the Secure Rural Schools program to help fund critical services, including public schools and law enforcement,” Bonamici said. “Communities have told me how difficult it is to adequately fund public services without this federal assistance. I look forward to working on a long-term strategy to manage our forests effectively and provide communities with financial stability and first-rate schools and services.”