Congressional bill could produce timber jobs, revenue for area
Secure Rural Schools funding extended
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday that extends federal money for schools and roads in counties that contain national forest land.
H.R. 527, the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013, has a provision that extends Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act funding for one year, allowing forested counties and public schools within those counties to receive payments based on pre-2000 levels of timber harvesting activity on federal lands.
The bill continues revenue that in California alone provides $33 million for schools and roads, according to Rural County Representatives of California. President Barack Obama has until Oct. 1 to sign the bill.
“Nevada County is not affected nearly as much as our partners like Plumas, Sierra and Siskiyou and Lassen counties. The majority of their land is forest service land,” said Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Holly Hermansen. “The intent of the funding was to bring in funds that could not be realized from the use of the land in other ways.”
Hermansen said the funds had been reduced about 10 percent the last five years because the revenues had not been renewed and elimination altogether was possible, so the funds had to be spread out.
Nevada County schools received $175,000 annually from the previous bill — split between Tahoe-Truckee schools and Sierra College — from the rural schools act, said Hermansen, to offset any lack of economic growth from inability to develop on federal forest lands.
“It’s not a great amount of money for Nevada County schools,” she said, “but in those counties where a large portion of their land is national forest, it is life or death.”
— Jennifer Terman
A bill approved by the House of Representatives last week seeks to reduce fire fuels in national forests while also raising revenue from the harvested timber stemming from such work.
H.R. 1526, the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, was passed by the House of Representatives Sept. 20 by a 244-173 vote and awaits a vote from the Senate.
The bill would stimulate jobs in the timber industry, which is a fraction of what it once was, as sawmill closures have been widespread, said Joe Griggs, manager of Robinson Enterprises, a longtime Nevada City logging company. Griggs cited that sawmill production dropped 75 percent in the last 30 years due to environmental protection of national forest land.
“The saw mills depended upon a steady supply of timber from the federal land,” Griggs said, adding Nevada County is much less affected than other counties with 70 or more percent national forest land. “Sierra, Plumas, Placer County — their main economic driver was timber and lumber and agriculture. And as the national forest management policy changed, the harvest levels were drastically reduced.”
There is a shortage of jobs but no shortage of timber, Griggs said. Yet the land cannot be accessed because of regulations.
“For the last 20-30 years, forest policy has been to protect the forest by not logging it, and that may have been incorrect,” he said. “To just blanket eliminate men and machinery from being used on the land is detrimental to the health of the forest.”
The federal funding from the bill could benefit logging companies that are contracted for maintenance services, Griggs said, as well as the federal government that benefits from the sale of timber from national forests.
“The federal or state agency gets the funding and contracts with companies to do the work in the field. We could possibly end up with some contracting opportunities through the forest service,” he said. “Typically a logging job will produce a product with value, and that puts money back in the government. When they sell timber, it goes back to the treasury.”
Griggs said he would like to see the funds spent on forest fire prevention rather than firefighting.
“I see H.R. 1526 as a bill about giving professional land managers the authority to do what they believe is right in the forest,” Griggs said.
“Many of us want to see the money spent in advance of the fire and trying to do some work in the forest we know can prevent fires — thinning and clearing and general maintenance, so we can try to not have the catastrophic wildfires.”
According to govtrack.us, the bill establishes at least one Forest Reserve Revenue Area within each unit of the National Forest System designated for sustainable forest management for the production of national forest materials (the sale of trees, portions of trees or forest products from system lands) and forest reserve revenues (to be derived from the sale of such materials in such an area). The bill states that the purpose of an area is to provide a dependable source of 25 percent payments and economic activity for each beneficiary county containing system land that was eligible to receive payments through its state under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000.
Proponents of the bill contend that it would create jobs and localize management of national forest lands, while opponents contend the bill would limit environmental review and leave management of national forests to states.
According to AmericanForests.org, proponents argue that over the next decade, the bill will create more than 200,000 jobs and save nearly $400 million. Opponents, which include both the White House and environmental groups, criticize the bill’s limited environmental reviews and its delegation of federal forest management to states.
The bill also places statutory requirements on the amount of timber to be harvested annually, which would be exempt from judicial review and environmental law restrictions.
California 1st District Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) voted in favor of H.R. 1526 Monday, according to a statement from LaMalfa’s office.
“Rural economies devastated by excessive red tape and the wildfires caused by mismanagement of our forests will finally start to turn the corner under this bill,” LaMalfa said.
“While the Secure Rural Schools program is important, local governments wouldn’t need federal funding if we simply managed our forests properly.”
“This measure returns common sense to our national forests by ending decades of neglect by the Forest Service,” LaMalfa said.
“Timber work not only creates jobs in our communities, it also decreases the potential for massive wildfires by thinning our overgrown forests. If this law was in place, we wouldn’t see wildfires on the scale of the Rim Fire that nearly destroyed Yosemite National Park.”
Though H.R. 1526 bill passed the House of Representatives, its acceptance by the Senate is unlikely, said Kevin Cann, chair of Rural County Representatives of California and supervisor of Mariposa County, in which the Rim fire has burned 257,134 acres and cost $124.5 million as of Wednesday, according to Stanislaus National Forest. The fire continues to burn.
“I recognize the bill will not successfully get through the Senate at this point. It is so necessary that we get some action for restoring forest health, and the senators know that,” said Cann.
“While they will essentially choke on portions of 1526, we need them to come up with an active version so they can conference and make some progress. We are really getting in desperate conditions with our forest.”
A statement issued Sept. 18 by Obama’s office of management and budget stated opposition to H.R. 1526, saying the bill would undermine existing public land and environmental laws, rules and processes. Part of the bill would require the USDA to sell no less than 50 percent of the sustained yield from the bill’s newly created Forest Reserve Revenue Areas. The administration opposes specifying timber harvest levels, forgoing public input, environmental analyses and multiple-use management or ecosystem changes.
Though the bill would offer funds to stimulate logging jobs for clearing and maintenance purposes, it won’t be able to restore the logging industry’s former glory, Griggs said.
“The logging industry has been beat down to a fraction of what it was,” he said.
“If the bill passes and some money is redirected toward maintenance of our forests, there will be some jobs, maybe. But the main thing is to try to stop the catastrophic wildfire and damage to our watershed, wildlife and recreation.”
The watershed is another aspect of the preventive maintenance, as wildfires clear out water-absorbing vegetation and cause runoff, Griggs said.
“Protecting the water shed is a huge part,” he said. “When all the vegetation is burned off the landscape and we get a normal winter with 40, 50, 60 inches of rainfall, the sediment is going to run off the hillside and we’ll lose a lot of soil. It will go down to be captured in the reservoirs and there will be a lot of erosion.”
The contentious bill awaits a vote by the Senate and would still have to be passed by the president before enactment begins.
“It’s good news I think for California land owners and maybe the timber industry, but the president still has to pass it, and it has to be funded,” Griggs said.
“It still has a long way to go before the rubber hits the pavement.”
To contact Staff Writer Jennifer Terman, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4230.
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