Rural communities that once relied on the timber industry for job creation and tax revenues are going broke. Over the last several decades, government regulation and environmental litigation have hampered the ability of our rural communities to best use public lands for economic growth. In 2000, the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program was enacted to compensate rural communities for their declines in revenue from less timber receipts. However, the program's expiration is leaving towns with uncertainty about future payments and no reforms on the horizon.
The SRS program was designed as a temporary measure, but Congress has reauthorized this funding three times as it struggled to find permanent reform. In a time of record deficits, we must stop providing short-term fixes to our financial woes and concentrate on long-term solutions. Better solutions would empower Idaho's rural towns and counties that contain National Forest System land.
To further this goal, I have introduced the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act, legislation which would provide a viable successor to the SRS program. The idea for this legislation was first brought to my attention by a bipartisan group of county commissioners in Idaho during the 112th Session of Congress.
The legislation would test methods of local forest management to generate revenue for the funding of local services in rural communities. It would let the governor of a state appoint a local board of trustees to assume management of select federal forest acreage, known as "community forest demonstration areas." Then, the governor would petition the Secretary of Agriculture to allow management of the demonstration acreage by the appointed board. This would give rural communities more local control of public forest lands. Hunting and fishing rights, as well as other recreational uses and tribal rights, would be protected. However, no federally designated wilderness areas could be included in the pilot programs, allowing such areas to remain off limits to multiple uses.
To put the astonishing disparity in the level of stewardship of state lands in Idaho to adjoining federal lands into context, consider this past fire season. In 2012, a record fire year, twenty percent of the national acreage burned was in Idaho. Of the approximately 1.5 million acres burned in Idaho, only 4,674 acres burned on state managed lands, the remainder was on federally managed lands.
The intent of the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act is to reduce federal government involvement in our counties and create robust job growth so necessary services have a much more stable funding source. The legislation will create good-paying jobs, empower counties through local management of federal forests and generate tax revenues for schools, roads and other public services. It is time the federal government stopped preventing communities from utilizing their own resources and started to let them thrive.