Idaho counties propose new management of federal forests

Sep 2, 2011

Five rural Idaho counties are proposing a pilot program that would turn management of 200,000 acres of federally owned forests over to the state. The plan, which has been endorsed by Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and the Idaho Land Board, is being advanced as a means of tapping a sustainable source of revenue to help shore up federal funding for rural Idaho schools, which is in danger of being cut through government austerity measures.

“You had me at ‘good morning,’” Otter is reported to have said at a Land Board meeting at which the idea was proposed. But although rural schools stand to benefit, not all parties are persuaded that the plan is a good idea. Local chapters of environmental organizations have voiced skepticism that state management will adequately protect national forest land.

Over 75 percent of the forests in Idaho are federally owned and managed. All tolled, these federal forests cover over 20 million acres. Because such a large proportion of rural Idaho is federally owned, counties collect little in the way of property taxes to fund rural schools and roads. At one time, rural Idaho counties funded their schools by receiving 25 percent of the receipts from timber activity on U.S. forests. However, due to changes in forest management, logging has all but dried up along with the thriving timber industry it supported.

According to Gordon Cruickshank, Valley County commissioner, the imbalance between public and private lands makes funding schools a challenge. It’s “all heavily timbered, rural, lots of public lands on all those counties,” Cruickshank explains.

“Valley County is 88 percent public lands. That leaves us very little of the rest of the land base to draw from for our property taxes.”

Acting Idaho State Forester David Groeschl explained that although forest management activities such as logging had long funded rural schools and road maintenance, environmental lawsuits spurred the decline in forest management, ultimately choking off the revenue stream.

“Forest management on federal lands started to decline in the ’80s … and ’90s … and the amount of timber harvesting declined significantly,” said Groeschl. “So the receipts that the counties received really dropped off. A lot of the decline in federal harvest was due to lawsuits that the forest service was facing. … A lot of the legal challenges came from various environmental groups that had concerns about how the forests were being managed.”

As a solution to the problem, 11 years ago, the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (Act) was passed to help replace the lost revenue from forest management. Through it, Idaho has received on average approximately $31 million a year in government subsidies for rural schools, according to Cruickshank. But with numerous government programs currently facing the chopping block, Idaho commissioners from several counties banded together to explore ways of replacing it.

The “Community Forest Trust” pilot program, as it is called, would place 200,000 acres of federal forest under the management of the Idaho Department of Lands, which also has the responsibility of managing the state’s endowment trust lands. According to Cruickshank, the program would extract natural resource products such as board timber, pulp products, and biomass on a sustainable basis. The receipts would cover the management costs, with net profits going to rural schools.

But not all parties are enthusiastic about the plan. John McCarthy, Idaho forest program director for the Wilderness Society, has indicated that although his organization has not yet come out against the proposal, there are some serious doubts.

“We haven’t taken a position,” McCarthy stated. “We’re reviewing it, and seeing how it shakes out.”
The Wilderness Society firmly supports the Act, and views it as a viable replacement of revenue from natural resource use. Indeed, McCarthy indicated that the subsidies from the Act should be more widespread.
“We’d like to see it modified so it benefits more counties that have public lands,” said McCarthy. 

 By contrast, the possibility of having some federal forests managed by the state is not altogether welcome. One reason for this, McCarthy says, is that the five Idaho counties are not alone in their circumstance of potentially losing their school funding.

“Every county in the country with significant public lands is in the same situation,” McCarthy said. “We should come up with a fix that is appropriate for all counties nationwide.”

Moreover, there is a significant amount of distrust that the Idaho Department of Lands, which has almost 100 years of forestry experience, will act in the best interests of the environment and the public.

“These are national public lands owned by everybody in the country, and to govern them with state laws, which in all cases are less protective of the environment …is not a good idea for land management.”

The five Idaho counties proposing the pilot project, Boundary, Shoshone, Clear Water, Idaho and Valley, are nevertheless reaching out to environmental groups with the intention of drawing them in and winning them over. Although a similar proposal 10 years ago, called the Federal Lands Task Force, ultimately failed amid controversy, the pressing situation to come up with alternative school funding has prompted community leaders to build bridges.

“We are contacting those groups to ask them to help provide recommendations on where these areas should be, and how they feel it would work,” explains Cruickshank.

“The main thing I would say is, let’s give it a try, and let’s see if we can make it work, and still maintain all the lifestyle and the air and water quality that we all understand that we need …”

Whatever the solution, one thing that is absolutely clear is that if rural schools lose their federal support, something will have to replace it. And with government programs being aggressively trimmed, there are no guarantees that rural school dollars won’t be the next thing to go. The results, according to Cruickshank, would transform rural communities.

“You’d probably see rural communities really be devastated.  … Schools would probably close.
But with the endorsement of the governor and the State Land Board in hand, the advocates of the Idaho Community Forest Trust pilot plan are moving forward to win the doubters over and, ultimately, take their proposal to Washington. Cruickshank, at any rate, is optimistic that there will be support for the idea of putting Idaho’s forests back to work.

“With the technology, and the knowledge, and the science we have today, I think we can manage these timberlands responsibly and still produce value for our state and for the nation.”— Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent