U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman were among the leaders of a rally on the steps of the Idaho Statehouse Thursday afternoon to announce the reintroduction of federal legislation that would permanently restore the Secure Rural Schools program that has helped fund services in Douglas County and other forested rural counties across the country.
Wyden introduced Secure Rural Schools in 2000. It was originally intended as a Band-Aid payment, a temporary fix. It helped staunch the bleeding in county budgets as the federal government curtailed its timber harvests, depriving county governments of shared revenues.
Historically, at the height of those harvests, Douglas County government received about $50 million in revenue to its general fund. Secure Rural Schools payments brought in around $8 million to the general fund in recent years, enough to slow but not stop the county’s annual dip into its general fund reserve. Those payments also provided funds for roads, sheriff’s patrols and local schools.
Nationwide, the program has provided nearly $7 billion to about 700 rural counties across the country since its inception.
SRS funding has often been hard to rely on because it was only approved for one- or two-year chunks. The program has not yet been reauthorized for the 2019-20 budget year. Wyden’s proposed Forest Management for Rural Stability Act, reintroduced to the Senate last week, would make SRS payments permanent by creating an endowment fund to be managed by an independent nonprofit organization.
Wyden stressed the importance of bipartisan work on the solution. He was joined by Idaho’s Republican U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and James Risch, both cosponsors of the bill, at Thursday’s rally. Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon is also a cosponsor.
Wyden said the permanent endowment would end the financial whipsaw counties have faced as they’ve worked out their budgets each year, uncertain whether they would have sufficient funding for police and roads.
“Long-term quality of life in rural America requires a new long-term roadmap. That is what we are laying out here today,” Wyden said.
Freeman, who is also president of the Association of O&C Counties, called the bill a bold and creative solution at Thursday’s rally and said it will provide financial predictability for counties that have depended on federal timber payments.
“Oregon rural counties face serious challenges and serious demands for services. This bill presents an equally serious solution that generates real hope for all 700 counties in 40 states and specifically for our O&C counties. We have long relied on Secure Rural Schools as a safety net to fund essential services back at home, and we are grateful for the senators’ work on this bill,” Freeman said.
O&C refers to timberlands formerly owned by the Oregon and California Railroad and currently federally owned and managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Under federal law, the timber is supposed to be harvested and revenue shared with the counties where O&C timberlands are located. Some of the SRS money makes up for limited harvests on those lands.