Idaho Examiner - Sen. Larry Craig News Releases

Friday, March 04, 2005

Healthy Forests, healthy kids

by Senator Larry Craig

“To waste, to destroy our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very property which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed.”

President Teddy Roosevelt, the man responsible for establishing today’s U.S. Forest Service, uttered these words almost 100 years ago. Roosevelt is well-known as a conservationist, a man who fully enjoyed nature and the outdoors, and thought we should preserve them for future generations. If you read the passage closely, however, it is easy to see that Roosevelt believed federal lands should be used as well as conserved.

In establishing our National Forests, Congress and President Roosevelt intended that they would be managed in a sustained multiple-use manner in perpetuity, providing revenues for local counties and the federal treasury in perpetuity as well. Public forests were never intended to be locked up with “Keep out” signs at the entrances.

Those who live near a National Forest likely understand why. Since the federal government does not have to pay property taxes, many counties across the West, some of which are 90 percent owned by the federal government, find it nearly impossible to develop a solid property tax base. Only a few years after creating the National Forest system, this problem became painfully clear. In 1908, Congress passed a bill which created a revenue sharing mechanism to offset for forest counties the effects of removing these lands from economic development.

From 1908 until about 1993, the revenue sharing mechanism worked extremely well. Rural counties with lots of federal land received 25 percent of all revenues generated on public lands. As many Idahoans know, these revenues helped counties provide many of the schools and road projects their residents needed.

However, from 1986 to the present, we have, for a variety of reasons, reduced our sustained active multiple-use management of the National Forests, and the revenues have declined sharply. Most counties have seen a decline of more than 85 percent in actual revenues generated on our National Forests and therefore an 85 percent reduction in “25 Percent” payments to counties. These payments are used to help fund schools, roads, bridges, snowplows and sandtrucks.

Five years ago, Senator Ron Wyden and I, along with a few other colleagues in the House and Senate, took strong action to address what was a growing problem. The law we succeeded in passing came to be known as the Craig-Wyden bill, and it established a formula that stabilized the revenues counties receive from the National Forests. Participating counties receive the greater of 25 percent of the current year's receipts or the average of the highest three years since 1986. Counties may also direct funds toward a variety of projects, such as teen work crews, urban forestry, or forest-related education.

Craig-Wyden also established Resource Advisory Committees (RACs), diverse groups of 15 people who direct a share of the monies to projects on the local forest. RAC members include county commissioners, school superintendents, businessmen and women, members of conservation groups and a variety of other individuals in the decision-making process. The program has been judged a success by nearly all involved, because everyone gets a real say in how their local forests are used, and how their communities will benefit. It truly is a collaborative process.

RAC projects have addressed a wide variety of improvements drastically needed on our National Forests. Projects have included fuels reduction, habitat improvement, watershed restoration, road maintenance and rehabilitation, reforestation, campground and trail improvement, and noxious weed eradication.

In spite of its success, Craig-Wyden is not guaranteed to continue. The law is set to expire in 2006, which is why Ron Wyden and I have joined together in an effort to extend it for another seven years. The bill to extend Craig-Wyden enjoys strong support from both parties in the House and the Senate, and I am very optimistic that it will be approved by Congress and signed by President Bush.

Rural communities are the lifeblood of western states like Idaho, and quite often, public forests are the lifeblood of those communities. Without the revenue to pay for basic services, these communities struggle, and sometimes waste away. However, I will continue to work for solutions like Craig-Wyden that help maintain Idaho’s counties and towns as great places to live.
“Speak softly and carry a big stick,” was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s most famous sayings. Clearly, he knew where that stick came from.

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