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Time to bring certainty to rural communities

April 19, 2013
By Congressman Raul Labrador

In Idaho, the economies of rural communities once relied upon the timber industry for job creation and tax revenues. Over the last several decades, radical environmental groups have hindered the ability to develop timber from our public lands.

Counties that were once dependent upon timber receipts to fund schools, roads, and daily operations were left desolate and broke.

In 2000, when the federal government operated with a budget surplus, and in order to compensate for the decline in timber receipts, Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools & Community Self-Determination Act.

These payments were supposed to be phased out over time as counties diversified their local economies. While Congress has reauthorized this funding twice, we are still fighting the broader issues about multiple use on public land and our counties have been left in limbo.

In a time of record deficits, we must stop providing short-term fixes to our financial woes and start working toward a solution.

Traditional rural timber communities have been operating in an environment of uncertainty for decades. Many public lands in western states have been inaccessible due to federal policies and tedious litigation.

We must find a long-term solution to help rural counties and remove the uncertainty these communities are facing.

To further this goal, I have introduced the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act, legislation which would provide a viable successor to the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program.

The idea for this legislation was first brought to my attention by a bipartisan group of county commissioners in Idaho during the 112th Session of Congress. This month, the House Committee on Natural Resources, of which I am a member, held a hearing on this legislation.

The hearing included testimony from Idaho County Commissioner Skip Brandt.

Commissioner Brandt testified in support of my legislation for more state management of federal forest lands. A video of Commissioner Brandt's testimony can be viewed here. At the hearing, I also questioned United States Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell about the effectiveness of the SRS program. A video of the exchange can be viewed here.

If enacted, this legislation would serve as a model to replace the expired SRS program in certain rural communities. The legislation would authorize pilot programs, in partnership with states, to encourage local forest management in order to generate revenues required to fund local services.

The legislation would create "community forest demonstration areas" to allow the governor of a state to appoint local boards of trustees to assume management of selected federal forest acreage. The governor would then petition the Secretary of Agriculture to cede management of the demonstration acreage to the appointed board.

Hunting and fishing rights, as well as other recreational uses, would be protected. However, no federally designated Wilderness areas could be included in the pilot programs, allowing such areas to remain off limits to multiple use.

Rural communities are suffering in this economy and their greatest assets are being held captive by the federal government. Instead of being allowed to generate jobs and revenue, they must accept millions of taxpayer dollars to make up for lost revenue.

My legislation would allow communities to create good-paying jobs and empower counties to generate revenue on their own by locally managing federal forests. The current system provides cash payments to counties, which is fiscally unsustainable, and leaves counties unsure if the money will be there from year-to-year. My legislation will increase jobs and local economic activity and will result in healthier, more vibrant forests.

It is time the federal government stopped preventing communities from utilizing their own resources to generate tax revenues to pay for schools, roads and other civic programs. Our intent is to allow communities to become more self-sufficient by creating new jobs and a stable funding source to provide necessary services to their residents.
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