Greenwire article today:
Localities feel short-changed by program to thin overgrowth
A program that awards federal contracts to companies to thin overgrown forests has won praise from timber interests but is leaving localities feeling empty-handed.
Unlike most federal timber-harvesting operations, the stewardship contracts used by the national Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management don’t devote any proceeds to the counties where the forests are located.
That may change with the 2018 farm bill, as counties and some forest advocates press Congress to add a provision giving counties what they’ve requested since the program became permanent in 2014: a quarter of the revenue from timber sales.
A 25 percent share would match the portion counties receive from most harvesting in federal forests.
“We believe this proposal will have widespread support,” said Steve Brink, vice president for public resources at the California Forestry Association, a trade group.
Counties with federal forests have seen sharp declines in timber revenue over the years, as the Forest Service takes down fewer trees. To help make up some of that revenue, Congress created the Secure Rural Schools program in 2000, which distributed funds to 4,400 schools in 775 forest counties, according to Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).
The program expired in 2015, and Cantwell has urged the Trump administration to support its renewal. When it expired, the government returned to the old formula of giving counties 25 percent of timber proceeds.
Most of the affected counties are in California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Alaska.
Stewardship contracting appeared as a pilot program in 1999, with 28 projects around the country. Initially, lawmakers figured that the economic benefit of timber operations would reach localities and that revenue sharing wasn’t necessary, Brink said.
The government contracts for up to 10 years with companies for forest management projects that also include prescribed burns. The federal government receives some of the proceeds of sales, and that money goes back into future stewardship contracts.
The contracting program has had support from timber companies and forestry groups such as the National Association of State Foresters and the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, which monitors and evaluates the role of communities in stewardship contracting.
Most stewardship contracting is through the Forest Service, rather than BLM.
In 2013, the Forest Service issued 195 contracts, which allowed for the production of 865,000 tons of biofuel from the thinning of 171,000 acres and the reduction of hazardous fuels on 69,000 acres, the group American Forests reported. In total, 36,000 acres of forest vegetation and 72,000 acres of wildlife habitat were improved through these contracts.
More than one-fourth of all timber harvested from national forests was through stewardship contracting that year, American Forests reported, citing Forest Service data.
Uncertainty over the Secure Rural Schools program may be sparking the drive for a change to stewardship contracting, Brink said.
The program lapsed for a period in 2014 also, leading to an 80 percent decline in payments to counties, the National Association of Counties said in a letter to leaders on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in 2016.
NACo is lobbying for revenue sharing, as well as for renewal of the schools program. That’s one reason the group supports broader forest management legislation proposed by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), the “Resilient Federal Forests Act,” which devotes revenue to counties, said a NACo spokesman, David Jackson.
Revenue from stewardship contracting supports a wide range of county services, NACo said.
“NACo supports stewardship end results contracting projects as a tool to manage federal forests and rangelands, but only if they retain the historical receipts sharing with counties,” the group said in its platform of issues for 2016 and 2017.