Hellbender Journal Autumn 2002
Three out of Four Allegheny
Counties Choose to Gamble, and Lose
An Opportunity for Counties
to Select Guaranteed Payments Arises
By Rachel Martin
Probably the largest single reason given for opposition
to ending commercial logging in the Allegheny National Forest is
the alleged effect on the payments made by the Forest Service to
the four counties in which the Allegheny lays.
The arrangement, known generally as the 25% Fund (the
Forest Service pays 25% of all revenue from the national forest
to the counties), was implemented in 1908 as a way to make up for
the fact that local governments could not tax the federal land within
their boundaries. Because commercial logging generally provides
the vast majority of the funds paid out to local counties, efforts
to curb logging in our national forests have often met with local
opposition because of the resulting potential for decreased payments
The Allegheny Defense Project has, for the past six
years, supported the National Forest Protection and Restoration
Act, a bill introduced in the U.S. Congress, that would not only
end the national forest timber sale program, but also provide guaranteed,
steady payments to national forest counties. This legislation, however,
is not expected to pass in the near future, and when logging is
decreased as a result of lawsuits, or for any number of reasons,
generally the county payments decrease.
In response to the county payments shortfalls as a
result of nationwide decreases in the federal timber cut, Congress
passed a bill in 2000 that allowed for a new county payment mechanism
that would provide stable, guaranteed payments to counties regardless
of the amount of timber cut off our national forests. This bill,
the "Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination
Act", allows counties to receive 85% of the average of their
three highest payment years for schools and roads, and 15% of that
average for other county projects. The bill allows counties to choose
whether to remain in the status quo 25% Fund or to opt for the new
guaranteed payment system.
In most areas of the country, this was a no-brainer.
The vast majority of counties saw the guaranteed payments as the
wise fiscal choice, and opted into the system. In the Allegheny,
however, things were a little different. Three of the four counties
(Warren, McKean, and Elk) under the advisement of the pro-logging
Allegheny Forest Alliance (AFA), a coalition of timber companies,
townships, and school districts, chose the traditional 25% payment
system. (Interestingly, the Allegheny Forest Alliance receives the
majority of their funding from school districts and townships which
pledge 5% of their 25% fund receipts to the coalition every year.
The pledges from the school districts alone amounted to $150,000
in 1999 in AFA's coffers.) Forest County, the smallest of the four,
chose the guaranteed payments.
The result? In 2001, for the first time in 25% Fund
history, Forest County received a higher payment ($1,392,228) amount
than any of the other three counties (Warren: $1,269,085, McKean:
$1,168,498, and Elk: $965,551.) Despite the fact that the three
counties that did not choose the guaranteed payments made a conscious
choice to keep their school funding tied to timber extraction, the
counties, and especially the Allegheny Forest Alliance, have been
calling foul, attempting to persuade the media, the courts, and
the public that the Allegheny Defense Project is responsible for
the funding shortfall. While it is certainly extremely unfortunate
that schools are forced to do with less, it is important to remember
that the real responsibility for funding shortfalls lies squarely
on the shoulders of the timber industry-beholden local politicians
who chose to gamble on their communities' kids. Let's hope they
don't make the same mistake later this year when they will have
the option to choose the guaranteed payments.
Making a New Selection
Despite the poor rationale for their choice to go
with the 25% payments system fate is prepared to deal Elk, McKean,
and Warren Counties an opportunity to undo their damaging decisions.
Under federal law, the original choice to elect into the 25% payment
program was valid for only two fiscal years with the most recent
applicable fiscal year expiring on September 30, 2002.
Elk, McKean, and Warren Counties will have an opportunity
to elect into the guaranteed payment program sometime in 2003. Whatever
decision these counties make will apply to all revenues received
after October 1, 2002. In other words, if the counties elect in
2003 to switch from the 25% payment program into the guaranteed
payment program they will not be effected by any fluctuations in
revenue that occur after this past September.
This is an important opportunity for these counties.
They had the opportunity to observe the success of Forest County
in the guaranteed payments program and have no reason to continue
compromising the fiscal viability of their communities. But this
will only mean something if the counties put their interests before
those of the timber industry,
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