Forest Service Stiffs Rural Schools

Published October 1, 1999

“Every chance he gets, the President talks about improving education in America,” Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) said. “With this veto threat, we can only assume that his support of education does not apply to rural communities.”

Goodlatte was referring to the Clinton-Gore administration’s vow to veto a bill that would restore funding for schools and roads in forest communities devastated by cuts of up to 90 percent in logging in National Forests. The bill, introduced by Representatives Nathan Deal (R-Georgia) and Allen Boyd (D-Florida), is meant to provide an emergency fix until a long-term solution can be developed.

The stage was set for the funding crisis nearly 100 years ago, when the National Forest System, which today totals 192 million acres of federal land, was established in 1907. Congress recognized that it was robbing rural forest communities of the tax base necessary to support their schools and roads, and so took steps to correct the situation.

In 1908, Congress enacted a law requiring that 25 percent of all Forest Service revenue be returned to the communities surrounded by National Forests. In 1937, Congress directed the Bureau of Land Management to contribute 50 percent of the income from the 2.6 million acres of forests it manages to the communities those lands surround. The system has worked well . . . until now.

As Logging Goes, So Goes Education

Traditionally, most Forest Service and BLM income, like the incomes of forest community residents themselves, has come from logging. During the Clinton-Gore administration’s tenure, logging has been cut by up to 90 percent in some National Forests–75 percent overall–at the urging of such administration allies as Earth First!, the Wildlands Project, and the Sierra Club.

As a result, school funding in logging communities has fallen to the point where staff cuts have been necessary in many cases. According to a spokesperson for Representative Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), some students, like those in Riggins, Idaho (pop. 527), sell lemonade and water to tourists to pay for modest extracurricular activities. Many towns have been forced to go the route of Grangeville, Idaho (pop. 3666) and eliminate all extracurricular activities.

Solutions versus Band-Aids

Goodlatte’s bill (H.R. 2389), which his House Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry is considering, would require the Forest Service and BLM to fund forest communities, out of their own budgets, at a level equal to the average of the three highest years between 1985 and the bill’s enactment. The bill goes back to 1985 to include years before the Clinton-Gore administration began its logging cutbacks, thus slashing school funding. It is this provision that the administration finds objectionable: In order to keep the agencies’ operations funded at their current levels and still fully fund the schools, timber harvesting would have to be increased substantially.

An alternate plan, which the Clinton-Gore administration finds acceptable, was set forth in a June 7, 1999 letter from Department of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to House Speaker Dennis Hastert. That plan, however, would leave the rural schools little better off than they are today, since it proposes funding them at less than half of the late 1980s’ levels. Funding, under this alternate plan, would come from increased spending of tax dollars rather than timber harvest income.

“Woodsman Spare That Tree” Myth

The preference for using tax dollars rather than Forest Service and BLM income appears to be motivated by the administration’s desire to satisfy the radical anti-logging wing of the environmental movement. Among Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck’s top priorities are further cuts in timber receipts, destruction of logging roads, and expanded restrictions on logging–all in the name of protecting our forests.

But Dombeck’s agenda flies in the face of his own agency’s reports and foresters’ advice. Forest service figures show that the last year we harvested more timber than we grew was 1933. Today, millions of acres of trees are planted, as well as spread naturally, every year.

Indeed, the Forest Service’s failure to cut timber has led to a dangerous build-up of fuel in the National Forests. (See “Wildfire,” Environment News, August 1999.) As was noted in a recent hearing before Chenoweth’s Forests and Forest Health Subcommittee (which is also considering H.R. 2389), Forest Service mismanagement threatens not only the health of forests, but the lives of residents in the towns that surround them.

Warned Chenoweth, “What’s at stake are the lives of local residents and fire fighters, the environmental health of our national forests, the protection of adjacent state and private forests and property, and the economic well-being of local communities.”