U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, entered the following remarks into the congressional record today on the introduction of bipartisan legislation to re-authorize the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (S. 1692):
"Over 100 years ago this Congress passed a law which formed a compact with counties, boroughs and parishes in rural America where the National Forests are located. That compact stipulated that the Forest Service would share 25 percent of its revenues with local governments to support roads and schools.
"This agreement was put into law 60 years before the Payment in Lieu of Tax law was written to help compensate counties for the loss of revenue caused by the inability to tax federal property.
"Over the years, the Forest Service shared billions of dollars with the counties and, until 1990, the amount of those payments increased almost every year. In fact, the Forest Service sold $1.6 billion worth of timber in fiscal year 1990. As a result, counties received more than $402 million in 25 percent Payments to support schools and roads.
"More importantly, the Forest Service timber sale program in 1990 generated more than 102,000 direct and indirect jobs in areas that now have the highest unemployment rates in the country. Those timber sales generated more than $5.3 billion -- that is billion with a "B" of economic activity and $800 million in federal income taxes. Further, revenue from the Forest Service's timber sale program supported many of the other Forest Service's multiple-use programs, including recreation, wilderness, road building and maintenance, and fire suppression.
"All that changed in 1990 and 1991, when activists used the Endangered Species Act to reduce, and in some instances stop, timber harvesting across the West. If I could wave a magic wand and legislate reforms to the many environmental laws that have been twisted and misconstrued in order to block any development of our natural resources, rather than ensuring responsible decision making by our federal land management agencies, as Congress intended, I would.
"In the long run, I think that"s what is needed, and I am convinced that given the economic malaise this country suffers, the American public is beginning to understand the wrongheaded direction our federal land management has taken over the last two and a half decades.
"But I don't think I can accomplish that in this Congress, and I'm compelled to avoid adding any additional pain and suffering to the shoulders of the small rural communities that depend on Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act payments. Therefore I'm joining Senators Bingaman and Wyden and others in co-sponsoring legislation to re-authorize the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act for another five-year period.
"Senator Bingaman has fully described the bill, but it re-authorizes the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act at fiscal year 2011 payment levels for five more years. We have reduced the annual reduction in payments from the 10 percent level in current law down to a 5 percent annual reduction. Under this plan, counties, parishes, communities and schools will receive up to $364 million in temporary assistance each year for the next five years.
"I say "temporary" because this program was, and is, designed to be a short-term bridge to allow counties and communities to transition to the new economic reality that our wrongheaded federal lands policy has forced upon them.
"I want everyone to also understand that while having signed on to this bill, I'm also considering a number of other alternative solutions that have the promise of generating enough revenue and jobs from federal land activities to make our counties whole. I'm willing to go as far as turning control of some federal lands over to counties so that they may get some economic benefit from them. But first I will be taking a careful look at Representative Hastings's bill to generate additional resource management by lifting restrictions and expediting the processes needed to offer additional timber sales.
"And I want everyone to know that if a legitimate, acceptable, offset to pay for the cost of this program is not identified by the time the bill is ready to move to the Senate floor, I will have no alternative but to remove my name from the bill and will have to work to defeat the bill.
"I would tell my fellow senators that the folks in the House Resources Committee are fundamentally correct. We are going to have to either utilize our federal lands to support our rural communities or we should divest the federal government of those lands and let the states, or the counties, manage those lands. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the House to find a path forward for this approach in this and future Congresses.
"I will close by speaking directly to the counties, parishes, boroughs and communities that have now depended on the Secure Rural School program for more than a decade -- and for some counties in Oregon, Washington and Northwest California for more than two decades -- the Secure Rural Schools Payments are coming to an end. It could be this year if enough people do not rally around the bill that Senator Bingaman, I and our other co-sponsors have proposed. It could be two years from now if Representative Hasting and other Representatives prevail. Or it could be five years from now if we find the acceptable offsets needed to pay for our legislative proposal. My fervent hope is that the program will be replaced by a forest management system that actually puts people back to work in the forest, but it's coming to an end, and the counties and schools need to prepare for that eventuality."