Counties to see millions from reauthorized forest program

by Daily Inter Lake, Patrick Reilly

Northwest Montana counties will soon receive more than $8.5 million in payments from the U.S. Forest Service, thanks to reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools program.

Under this program, created by Congress in 2000, the Forest Service compensates county governments with forested federal land for revenue lost due to dropping timber production. These funds are intended for schools and other critical services, like roads and law enforcement.

It expired in September 2015, but was reauthorized in the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill lawmakers passed in March.

On Monday, the Forest Service released the retroactive Fiscal Year 2017 payments that counties can expect.

Flathead County’s payment is about $1.56 million; Lincoln County’s, $4.10 million; Sanders County’s, $1.66 million; Mineral County’s, almost $1 million; and Glacier County’s, about $37,000.

All three members of the state’s congressional delegation cheered the program’s return. In a press release, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., stated that “these much-needed funds are critical for Montana’s rural counties who have fallen on hard economic times due to declining timber harvests and natural resource production.”

Rep. Greg Gianforte, R.-Mont., stated in an email that “today’s announcement brings needed, promised funds to Montana’s rural counties. I am committed to enacting a long-term solution that gets us managing our forests again, brings greater certainty to Montana counties and begins to make our communities whole.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., also cast it as vital for local services. Without the program, he said, “roads go unpaved, emergency services suffer, and schools lose out on critical resources.”

“That’s why I’ve been relentless in my efforts to reauthorize [Secure Rural Schools] and bring this much-needed funding back to Montana counties as we look for more responsible ways to cut debt and spending.”

Flathead County administrator Mike Pence could not be reached for comment.