Congress recently passed and the president signed a one-year extension of Secure Rural Schools (SRS). Most commentators, however, see dim prospects for SRS’s renewal beyond 2014. The SRS program has been widely characterized as an interim safety net and transitional measure intended to tide counties over a period of dwindling timber harvests on national forests. It’s been said – even back in 2000, when SRS began – these payments were never intended as a long-term or permanent federal program. SRS would merely lend counties a hand as they shifted and diversified their local economies, making them less dependent on federal timber harvests.
Yet, this characterization of SRS misrepresents and misremembers a deeper and ongoing federal obligation to counties with national forests. Congress enacted a 10 percent timber revenue sharing measure in 1906, only a year into the Forest Service’s young life, and then raised the county share to 25 percent in 1908. The sharing provision sprang from a general recognition that counties hosting national forests suffered hardships on that account. Most notably, wherever national forests were laid out, counties lost potential property tax revenues, which in turn implied an increased tax burden for private landowners. Property taxes collected by local governments have traditionally supported schools, roads, police and fire protection, libraries, and other local services. Federal ownership also blunted potential growth in population and commerce. Moreover, counties retained the responsibility and expense of maintaining roads in national forests. The national forest land grab was by no means trivial. Here in Idaho almost 40 percent of the state’s area was appropriated for national forests. In our county – Shoshone County, Idaho – fully 72 percent is national forest.
Small wonder Idahoans and other westerners fought vigorously against the great and rapid expansion of forest reserves and national forests in the first decade of the 20th century. For his part, Gifford Pinchot, the national forest system’s great architect and advocate, sought to reassure westerners that their perceived negatives were really positives. In his 1907 book, The Use of the National Forest, Pinchot argued that federal forest ownership wouldn’t limit the uses of these lands but instead would insure that they achieved their highest use. The homesteader, the miner, the stockman, and “the small mill man” could go about their enterprises unfettered by the national forest designation, Pinchot confidently suggested.
Pinchot specifically addressed the issue of lost county property tax revenues in a section of the book titled “What happens to county taxes?”
“People who are unfamiliar with the laws about National Forests,” wrote Pinchot, “often argue that they work hardships on the counties in which they lie by withdrawing a great deal of land from taxation. They say that if the lands were left open to pass into private hands there would be much more taxable property for the support of school and road districts. The National Government of course pays no taxes. But it does something better. It pays those counties in which the Forests are located 10 percent of all the receipts from the sale of timber, use of the range, and various other uses, and it does this every year. It is a sure and steady income, because the resources of National Forests are used in such a way that they keep coming without a break.”
From the get-go, the chief purpose of the Forest Service’s timber revenue sharing was compensation for lost county property tax revenue. This provision was a foundational feature of the new Forest Service agency. Huge expanses of national forest land inevitably imposed (and continue to impose) great losses in property tax revenues upon counties. SRS, initially passed in 2000, provided for compensation of counties when timber revenue broke down. When SRS sunsets after 2014, however, the federal obligation to compensate for lost property tax doesn’t evaporate. Property tax is collected year-by-year by counties. Hence, compensating for lost property taxes isn’t a one-time, sometime, or time-limited matter. In our county – as in many counties – three years of delinquent property tax payments results in a property’s title being transferred to the county. Come to think of it, we’re not averse to applying the same principle to our county’s national forest lands. We need a long-term solution to the issue.
This column was written by the following: Jim Best, Leslee Stanley, and Larry Yergler, Shoshone County commissioners; and Chris Asbury, William Woodward, Robin Stanley, Dr. Robert Ranells, school superintendents in Avery, Kellogg, Mullan, and Wallace (respectively).