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Secure Rural Schools

Sen. Jeff Merkley

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Madam President, I rise to draw my colleagues' attention to an issue of great importance to our rural communities. If Congress does not act, many of our rural counties will face an increasingly dire state of affairs in the months to come. Across the United States, timber counties are facing local budgets suddenly and deeply in the red. This fiscal crisis could mean reduced schooldays, fewer sheriffs, more offenders on the street, and cuts to other basic county services.

Congress has the power to avert this impending disaster, and Congress must utilize that power. So we must act without delay to extend the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Self-Determination Act. Secure Rural Schools is not an entitlement program; it is a commitment this Nation, our Federal Government, made to rural forest counties out of fairness and common sense when it determined it would put environmental overlays over large blocks of forest land that we dedicated to timber production with revenue shared with the local county. This contract between the Federal Government and our rural counties has been at the foundation of our National Forest System, and we in this Chamber need to honor it. Many folks come here and talk about how the Federal Government needs to uphold its share of the bargain. Well, this is an explicit contract with our rural counties, and we need to uphold that bargain.

Since 1908--more than 100 years--the Federal Government has appropriately shared timber revenues with counties for the infrastructure they develop because this timber land is in Federal hands and produces no property tax revenue to support that infrastructure.

Let me give some background on what the scale of this issue is for States such as Oregon. Oregon has 2.2 million acres of O&C lands. These lands were granted to the Oregon and California Railroad in 1866 and later reverted to the Federal Government when the railroad failed to live up to its terms of the grant. They also included a class of lands that originated from a similar situation--the Coos Bay Wagon Road lands. These lands make up a large percentage of the acreage in southern and western Oregon. Then there are Forest Service lands--timbered lands owned by the Federal Forest Service--that make up 14 million additional acres across the State of Oregon. When you add it all together, more than half of Oregon's lands are federally owned. That means they do not produce a penny of property taxes to support infrastructure in our rural counties. The O&C lands and the Wagon Road lands were dedicated to timber production, with the counties receiving 50 percent of all revenues. Counties with national forest lands received 25 percent of the timber revenues. This created jobs and a source of money to provide counties with that needed infrastructure.

In the early 1990s timber production began a long decline--a precipitous decline. Trends such as automation and trade hit the sector hard, as they had so many more sectors. On top of this, there were the environmental overlays that dramatically reduced timber harvesting.

To compensate for the newly imposed Federal structure that changed the entire pattern of timber production in our rural counties, our National Government developed the Secure Rural Schools Program to provide payments to counties based on historic timber harvest levels but no longer tied directly to the annual timber harvest.

This type of arrangement is not unique to Oregon, nor are the problems arising from the lapse of the Secure Rural Schools Program. There are a great many States, particularly in the West, where much of the land is federally owned and counties rely on this program and similar programs to support key infrastructure.

It is no wonder that when the Secure Rural Schools payments lapsed in 2006, drastic measures had to be taken to adjust to the loss. Let me give some sense of what this is like in Oregon.

In Josephine County--southern Oregon--two-thirds of the county's general fund came from county payments. So loss of county payments means cutting public safety programs. Overnight, in 2006, patrols were cut down to just six individuals to cover an area the size of the State of Rhode Island.

In Lake County, where Federal lands make up 61 percent of the county, they cut their Federal road department from 42 individuals to 14--14 folks for a road department covering a land area equal to the combined size of Connecticut and Delaware.

In Jackson County, where one-third of the general fund comes from Federal payments, the county eliminated 117 jobs in parks, human services, roads, and public safety, and they closed all of their libraries.

Let me be clear. When the Federal Government fails to uphold the contract it has struck with our rural timber counties, the suffering is intense. It is an embarrassment that we would permit the Federal Government not to fulfill its commitment under this framework.

This impact is so substantial that the Oregon Legislature, when I was serving as speaker, redirected $50 million in transportation funds to the rural counties. In the year of 2007, I organized a bipartisan, bicameral tour of our most affected counties. We went out to talk to the county officials, and when we came back I advocated for and supported this $50 million emergency transfer to compensate for the fact that the Federal Government was breaking its contract with the timber counties in America. Let's not let that happen again.

Later, Congress restored this contract. But here we are now, 5 years later, facing the worst-case scenarios all over again. As Yogi Berra said, it is deja vu all over again. Because we failed to pass an extension before we left for the holidays, the last payment occurred a few weeks ago and timber counties don't know what is going to happen now. They would like to think folks in this Chamber will honor and support sustaining this Federal contract with our rural timber counties, but this Chamber has to act to make that happen.

The Eugene Register-Guard recently published an editorial about the situation in Lane County, stating:

The emerging picture looks like a multi-car pileup on Interstate 5.

Lane County is facing a $14 million shortfall. More than half of this--$7.2 million--will have to be absorbed by the sheriff's office. What does that mean for Lane County? It means the end of 24-hour patrol, with coverage limited to just 16 hours a day. It means so few officers that they would be unable to respond except ``to the most serious of crimes.'' It means parole and probation supervision will be eliminated for hundreds of offenders and 130 jail beds would have to be closed. In addition, the district attorney's office faces a $1.9 million reduction in county funding, which would mean the loss of between 12 to 20 employees in the criminal division and potential shutdown of the county's medical examiner's office. And this is one of the counties that is in better shape. Others could go bankrupt as early as June of this year. As the Register-Guard newspaper says, it is ``a dire predicament, and in desperate need of help from Congress.''

Rural counties in Oregon and elsewhere deserve to have the Federal Government honor its contract and to have the peace of mind that funds guaranteed to pay for their infrastructure are there--for the roads, for schools, for public safety. In this contract between the Federal Government and rural America, the Federal Government must uphold its end of the bargain. Rural counties have been on a roller coaster for far too long. They have been flying off the tracks. Pick any metaphor you want--a pileup on I 5, a roller coaster or a train running off the tracks--this is the situation in our rural timber counties. And those Members who don't have rural counties have other situations where there are vital Federal commitments. This one must be honored by this Chamber.

The first step is to extend the Secure Rural Schools Program as soon as possible. President Obama has supported and proposed and included in his budget a 5-year reauthorization of Secure Rural Schools and has made it mandatory spending. This short-term funding is a critical bridge to maintain schools and law enforcement in timber counties while we work for a viable long-term, sustainable management solution for Federal forests.

I want to be clear. Timber counties would rather have forest practices that allow sustained production of timber, as these lands were dedicated to. That creates jobs, it supports the whole supply chain, and it provides logs to the independent mills that don't own their own forest land. That is the vitality of rural communities.

My father worked at a sawmill when I was born--Harbor Plywood in Riddle, OR, and I lived in the adjoining town of Myrtle Creek.

Those of us with a timber background understand the essential nature of this Federal contract. We must get it done in this Chamber. I urge my colleagues to support it.

The Senator from Tennessee.

Sen. Lamar Alexander

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Madam President, I ask unanimous consent to speak as in morning business for 10 minutes, and I would ask the Chair to please let me know when 8 minutes has expired.

Without objection, it is so ordered.