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NW Congressional Members Lobby For Rural Funding

U.S. Forest Service

As Congress works on the new federal budget, Northwest Congressional members are working across the aisle to get money for two programs that help rural counties. They held a press event Tuesday to draw attention to their cause.

A noisy spot near the Capitol in Washington D.C. won’t remind you of the quiet of a majestic Northwest forest. But it was the setting Tuesday for a press conference that featured a handful of the region’s congressional members who represent rural counties. They were there to urge their colleagues to fund two programs that help  counties with large amounts of national forest land stay afloat.

“What happens on our national forests drives the economy in those communities. And this revenue, where there isn’t the forest levels and the revenue coming off the forests, it means that these communities are in a desperate situation,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington) said.

McMorris Rodgers asked federal budget writers to reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools Act. That’s a program whereby the government pays rural counties with federal forest land to help provide money for schools and other government functions. The money shared is based in part on how much timber is cut on federal land within individual counties. The act’s authority ran out in 2015 and it hasn’t been renewed.

Other speakers included Rep. Jamie Herrera Beutler (R-Washington), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon). They also urged full funding for the Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, program. That provides funding to counties with a lot of tax-exempt land owned by the federal government within their borders.

Several county commissioners testified their federal payments under these programs have been cut deeply during the last several years. Many say they’ve had to cut services and lay off employees.

Wyden also urged changes in the way the federal government pays for fighting wildfires. He called it ‘fire borrowing.’

“In rural America, we’ve seen these infernos, huge megafires. What the government does is short prevention and, then, when the infernos break out, the government borrows from the prevention fund to put the fire out and the problem gets worse," Wyden said.

Wyden says he and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) have been working to end ‘fire borrowing’, and fund wildfires separately from prevention.