There's money in that timber

Harvesting national forests could pay off for counties, other local governments

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North Idaho officials are lauding a bill, just rolled out by Idaho's first district representative, which aims to provide local government agencies with millions by harvesting federally owned timber.

"What it has at least created is the very healthy discussion of how do we fix the problems," said Dan Dinning, Boundary County commissioner. "I'm really hopeful it will succeed."

Boundary was one of several counties, including Shoshone, Clearwater, Idaho and Valley, to float a proposal to Rep. Raul Labrador that resulted in the congressman's bill.

HR6009, introduced last week, proposes giving each state management over some of the national forest in its boundaries, to generate a dependable funding source for counties and other local governments.

There would be at least a pilot 200,000 acres of national forest affected in each state. Although the land would still be affected by some federal laws like the Endangered Species Act, the forest would be managed as if state land, which is expected to alleviate restrictions on timber harvest.

"That's the essential part of the bill," said Phil Hardy, Labrador's spokesman, of how the bill aims at expediting national forest management.

There are 2.5 million acres of Idaho Panhandle National Forests.

The state would hire private contractors for harvest work, Hardy said, adding that the bill - the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act - is anticipated to provide more jobs.

The counties behind the proposal have projected the pilot implementation to bring in $13 million, replacing diminishing federal payments to public entities like school districts and road jurisdictions.

Trust boards would be tapped with monitoring management of the lands, and with funneling dollars to benefiting agencies, Hardy said.

"This is what we were doing in Idaho before," he said. "Timber sales were a fundamental part of Idaho's economy."

The chief motivation for the bill, Dinning said, has been to replace the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which provides federal payments to states and counties containing national forest land.

States distribute payments to counties to benefit public education, road improvements and other purposes.

SRS payments have shrunk each year, Dinning said, because of the struggling economy.

This is also the last year of the program, he said, under its latest reauthorization by Congress.

"There's continual uncertainty regarding funding for that, and especially now where our government just doesn't have any money," Dinning said, adding that SRS funds over half his county's road and bridge budget.

The counties' proposal aimed to "see if we could increase those revenues," Dinning said.

According to stats from Hardy, Idaho was given $34 million from SRS in fiscal year 2010, and $31 million in fiscal year 2011.

In 2010, $654,216 of SRS dollars went to Kootenai County. Boundary County received $1.8 million, and Shoshone $3.1 million.

Kootenai County Commissioner Dan Green said all funding from Congress is suspect these days, with the state of the economy.

Labrador's bill is a way to replace the SRS funds and gain local control of federal lands, he said.

"I think it would benefit Kootenai County, and I think the state could do a better job of managing our timber lands," Green said. "My understanding is we're able to manage our timber lands with less of a bureaucracy, and we're able to make decisions in a much more responsive mode."

John Pankratz, road supervisor for East Side Highway District, dubbed Labrador's bill as an excellent idea.

He noted that SRS funds have comprised roughly 45 percent of his agency's budget.

"It's huge," he said, adding that at its highest in 2008, SRS provided $172,000 to the district. "(If it goes away), just subtract that amount of money from roadwork."

The Post Falls Highway District would be grateful if the law provided a windfall, said Commissioner Lynn Humphreys.

Many transportation improvement projects have been delayed due to lack of federal and state grants, he said.

"If we can come up with additional funds to better some of our road structure, certainly this is a time of crisis," said Humphreys, whose district received nearly $81,500 in SRS this year. "Finding funding is more and more difficult."

The Coeur d'Alene School District received $77,660 in SRS funds last fiscal year, reported district Chief Operating Officer Wendell Wardell, which he described as invaluable.

"With over $8 million in budget cuts over the last several years, certainly all funding is helpful, and this funding bridges into the district's operations and reaches the classroom," he stated.

While Wardell wasn't familiar with HR6009, "the funding it provides will be welcome," he said.

"The community needs that funding mechanism to continue on federal lands," Wardell added.

And allowing state management could improve the condition of national forests, said David Groeschl, Idaho state forester and division administrator for forestry and fire for Idaho Department of Lands.

Unhealthy conditions are seen throughout national forest, Groeschl contended, because of constraints the federal government faces.

"Part of the problem is their hands are tied, through conflicting laws they try to manage under," he said. "And every time they do try to get a project put together, there's litigation and it gets held up."

He noted that management of Idaho trust lands brought in $32 million for public schools last year.

But there's no guarantee that operating national forest in state-run trusts would be as successful, he said.

"The revenue that could be generated will vary considerably, just depending on the markets," Groeschl said.

IPNF spokesperson Jai Kirchner said the agency doesn't comment on proposed legislation.

He noted that the federal government already conducts timber harvests on national forest every year.

"This year, we expect to issue sales for up to 40 million board feet," Kirchner said, adding that the funds will go to the National Treasury.

IPNF addresses forest health issues with a variety of restoration work, he said.

Private companies have the opportunity to bid for national forest projects, he added.

"We share the community's concerns for helping to create jobs and helping with local communities," Kirchner said.

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