Counties could take hit in forest funds

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Thirty-three counties in the state, including eight in Northeast Mississippi, will be adversely affected if Congress does not renew legislation that provides them federal funds for the national forest land within their borders.
The Mississippi counties and the schools within the counties have received $30.9 million through the Secure Rural Schools amp& Community Self-Determination Act since 2008. But unless Congress renews it, the act will expire after the current fiscal year, resulting in the loss of millions of dollars for rural schools and counties.
“It has been great for Benton County,” said Chancery Clerk Mark Ormon. “It has been a steady funding source.”
Benton County, which has 55,000 acres of Holly Springs National Forest located within its borders, accounting for about one-fifth of the county’s total land mass, is the biggest beneficiary of the program in Northeast Mississippi.
Between fiscal years 2008-2011, Benton received $1.4 through the federal program. It is estimated that Benton will receive a mere $20,186 in fiscal year 2012 for its national forest lands if the act is not renewed.
Statewide, funding from the act will drop 75 percent – from $8.9 million to $2.2 million between fiscal years 2008 and 2012 – unless Congress acts. If the Secure Rural Schools amp& Community Self Determination Act is not renewed, the national forest counties will receive funds from the federal government based on a formula that relies heavily on timber sales within the county.
The origination of the program goes back to the early 20th century with the development of national lands for multi-purpose use under the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt. At that time, it was decided 25 percent of all revenue from the national forests would be returned to the counties where the forests were located to provide them compensation since the land would not be available to be taxed by the counties.
But the current national policy is to limit timber sales in the national forests. That has greatly curtailed revenue.
In 2000, federal legislation was passed to supplant the lost timber sales – a kind of in-lieu-of-tax program.
The Partnership for Rural America Campaign, which includes officials in various states where national forests are located, particularly in the South and West, are working to get the program re-enacted. Joel Yelverton of Jackson, who lobbies for the group, said a goal is to get re-authorization of the program included in President Barack Obama’s budget.
If it is in the president’s proposal, that will make it more likely to be in the budget finally passed by Congress.
“We need some type of stable funding source so we can plan our budgets better,” Yelverton said.
Ormon said revenue from timber sales was an inconsistent method of compensating the national forest counties. The federal legislation has provided a more consistent source of funding, he said.
“Some years we would get very little from timber sales and other years we would get a lot,” he said. “You could not plan. … As of now I don’t know of any timber sales.”
In the U.S. House, 1st District Rep. Travis Childers, a Booneville Democrat, led an effort to send Obama a letter, containing the names of 69 House members, urging him to include the program in his budget.
“I hope the president listens to calls from myself and my colleagues to reauthorize this critical legislation, and I will continue working with members on both sides of the aisle to ensure our schools have the resources they need to save jobs and provide our children with a quality education,” Childers said.
Mississippi’s other three House members – Bennie Thompson, Gregg Harper and Gene Taylor – also signed the letter.
Roger Wicker of Mississippi was one of 29 senators to sign a similar letter. Mississippi’s other senator, Thad Cochran, did not sign the letter, but supports the program as the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee.
The bulk of the funds each county gets from the program is divided evenly between the school district and county road funds. Ormon said the $200,000 that went to the road funds for fiscal year 2008 represented about one-fifth of the small county’s road budget.
Smaller amounts go to conservation efforts in national forest counties.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.