By Becky Bohrer
Alaska's governor is refusing to repay or return more than $800,000 to the U.S. Forest Service due to automatic federal budget cuts.
Gov. Sean Parnell, in a letter to the agency's chief, dated Sunday, said he doesn't believe the Forest Service is authorized to demand the money back or to reduce funding to offset the cost. He said he won't ask the Legislature to consider the request.
"This sequester dilemma highlights the continued failure of the United States Forest Service to successfully manage the nation's forests, especially the Tongass," he said in the letter. Sequester is the term used to describe the mandatory federal budget cuts. The Tongass National, Forest, in southeast Alaska, is the nation's largest.
"I stand ready to discuss solutions to allow our forests to once again support healthy communities, not impoverish them," Parnell said.
A message left with the U.S. Forest Service seeking comment wasn't immediately returned.
Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell sent letters to 41 states, asking for the return of $17.9 million in timber payments used to pay for schools, roads, search and rescue operations in rural counties and conservation projects. "We regret having to take this action, but we have no alternative under sequestration," Tidwell said in his letter to Parnell, dated March 19.
The National Governors Association last month requested legal justification for the agency's demand of states. At least one other governor, Matthew Mead of Wyoming, has refused to repay about $200,000 that his state has received.
In Alaska, the amount in question includes $707,795 that already has been paid to the state under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act and $118,537 that has not yet been paid and would be withheld, Parnell said. The state was given the option of having the total amount - $826,332 - reduced from the funds the state receives under the act for things like conservation projects or getting a bill for the money that's already been paid out.