U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today blasted the U.S. Forest Service for trying to retroactively "claw back" payments made to Southeast Alaska timber communities under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act.
At a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing Tuesday on the Forest Service's 2014 budget request, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said that because of the automatic, across-the-board federal budget cuts commonly known as "sequestration," Alaska would be expected to return the 5.1 percent of the timber payments received earlier this year to the U.S. Treasury. Tidwell last month sent a letter to the state of Alaska asking for the return of $826,000 in timber payments.
"To suggest that we're going to claw back the revenues that we've given you and if you can't return that money, then we're going to ding you with penalties and fines. For Heaven's sake, we have got to figure out a better path forward than that," Murkowski told Tidwell.
Secure Rural Schools requires the Forest Service to make payments to communities impacted by the severe decline in timber receipts from national forest lands. Communities that once had thriving timber industries now depend on the funds to pay for schools, emergency services and other local services.
"Many of our rural communities are dependent on these payments only because the Forest Service has failed to actively manage our forests," Murkowski said. "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."
The Forest Service manages more than 22 million acres of national forest lands in Alaska, including nearly all of the land in Southeast.
Full video of the hearing can be viewed on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee website.