Senate OKs extension of timber payments

Posted: Thursday, March 29, 2007

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday approved a plan to extend payments to rural communities hurt by cutbacks in federal logging, including those in Alaska.

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The Senate plan would authorize about $2.8 billion to extend the so-called county payments law through 2011. Another $1.9 billion would be directed to rural states through a proposal to fully fund the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program, which reimburses state and local governments for federally owned property.

The plan, approved 75-22, faces an uncertain fate because it is attached to an emergency spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Bush has vowed to veto the bill because of concerns of a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Alaska lawmakers, however, were pleased with the plan, formally known as the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act.

"Many Alaska communities have been adversely impacted by the decline in federal timber sales. Extending this important program for five years will allow us to continue to provide the best possible education to young Alaskans throughout our state," said Sen. Ted Stevens in a prepared statement. He and Sen. Lisa Murkowski were the original cosponsors of the amendment.

Without the law, lawmakers have said that thousands of teachers and hundreds of law enforcement officers in dozens of states could be laid off.

The measure would allocate $526 million in emergency spending this year to 700 counties in 39 states hurt by logging cutbacks imposed in the 1990s to protect the spotted owl and other threatened species. Most of the money goes to six Western states - Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska - although Mississippi, Arkansas and other Southern states also receive significant payments.

The timber law expired last year. Efforts to reauthorize it have been frustrated by budget constraints and concerns that Oregon gets too much money under the current formula. The Senate plan would fully fund counties in Oregon and other Pacific states this year, then gradually decrease Oregon's share to a total of 28 percent of the overall program in 2011.

The amendment also includes a new formula for determining payments, which take into account the size of each state's National Forest lands. Because of that, Alaska should see a significant increase in payments in each of the five years.

"The federal government owns some 273 million acres of Alaska land in parks, forests, wildlife refuges and BLM lands," Murkowski said. "It is only equitable that the federal government contributes its fair share to Alaska communities for the lands it owns.."

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs U.S. forest policy, praised the Senate action but said the Bush administration had some significant concerns.

He said the administration disagreed that funding for the current budget year should be made on an emergency basis without corresponding cuts in other areas.

"The only thing that's happened here is Congress failed to act last year" to renew the law, Rey said.

• The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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