The Senate Natural Resources Committee has approved a one-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools Act.
It’s the biggest step yet in efforts to revive an expired safety-net program for rural counties in the West that no longer receive the kind of revenues from logging that once helped pay for education, jails, sheriff patrols and other public services.
Committee Chairman and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden says the extension was included in the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013, which passed out of committee in a business meeting Tuesday.
In a press release, Wyden said the extension would provide $329 million in 2014 to counties with significant federal forest lands, which are not on local tax rolls. Oregon would be the single biggest beneficiary, receiving an estimated $100 million, according to release.
The helium bill is expected to go to a full Senate for a vote by Sept. 30. Wyden thinks it has a strong chance of passing.
“The helium legislation, I think is a very good bet to pass because we very much need the helium for our economy. It’s key for MRI equipment and semiconductors,” he says.
Wyden says the one-year extension is meant to provide breathing room to rural timber counties that have made dramatic cuts in public safety and school budgets.
Several Southern Oregon counties, including Curry and Josephine, have little ability to collect revenue and have long relied on the Secure Rural Schools program and harvest of timber in federal forests to pay for basic services. Both counties have a local tax rate of less than $1.00 per thousand dollars of assessed value, and rejected local tax increase measures to fund public safety this spring.
Wyden says he continues to work on legislation that would specially designate some lands for timber harvest on O&C forests, a patchwork of old growth and young timber plantations managed by the BLM. These forestlands in western Oregon are named for the original owner: the Oregon & California Railroad.
“The focus of the long term approach is first, on getting the harvest up, particularly in the O&C counties. And I think we can do that while protecting our environmental treasures” Wyden says.
The Senate Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing next week on the management of federal forests.
The committee voted to approve a dozen other public lands bills Tuesday. The Oregon Treasures Act would approve land transfers to create two new wilderness areas in central Oregon’s high desert, Cathedral Rock Wilderness and Horse Heaven Wilderness.
Ben Gordon, with the Oregon Natural Desert Association, says creating the wilderness areas will help simplify what has been a confusing checkerboard of public and private land.
“It will help bring down barbed wire fences for wildlife, and bring peace of mind to recreators who will know they are on public lands,” Gordon says.
The Oregon Treasures bill would also expand the Wild Rogue Wilderness area, and designate new sections of the Chetco, Rogue, and Mollalla rivers as Wild and Scenic.