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State increases fees for forests

Congressional leaders voted Wednesday to increase the funds national forests pay counties and school districts as compensation for tax-exempt land.

Friday, November 05, 1999

Congressional leaders voted Wednesday to increase the funds national forests pay counties and school districts as compensation for tax-exempt land.

The House bill, written this summer, would require the Wayne National Forest and others, which do not pay local property taxes, to maintain a minimum payment even when income from timber sales decline.

"I don’t know what Lawrence County would get, but anything would be better than getting what we do now, which is nothing," said Pat Clonch, executive director of the Greater Lawrence County Area Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber has opposed the Wayne’s tax-exempt status and its moves to acquire more land.

Rural Lawrence school districts, like Symmes Valley, are hit hard when the federal government buys tax-producing property, because those tax dollars disappear, Mrs. Clonch said.

The bill moving through Washington, D.C., will not restrict forests from purchasing land, but will force more compensation from them, she said.

"We still need to know exactly how the distribution will be done and, locally, is it already set in stone for schools or would the county receive some reimbursement for money they’re losing?"

The 1908 law that created the national forest system returns a percentage of revenues generated from those lands to the states for county schools and roads. Timber sales, however, have fallen in the 1990s because of federal rules that restrict logging to protect endangered animals, birds and plants.

The House bill, approved Wednesday by a 274-153 bipartisan vote, crafts a new formula that requires the federal government to pay counties when current sales fall below the amount counties received when timber harvests were at their highest in the mid-1980s.

Supporters say the bill could help hundreds of rural schools in Ohio, California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and others that are forced to lay off teachers, reduce class offerings and do without equipment when the timber sales drop.

”This is a great, great moment for rural kids,” said Bob Douglas, president of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition.

But the bill has critics saying the new payment formula forces the government to cut down more trees.

Forest Service officials and conservationist foes of the legislation say that provision will force the government to cut down more trees or cut back on programs to protect endangered species and wetlands. By law, those programs cannot rely on funding sources like logging revenues.

President Clinton backed off an original threat to veto the bill, but sought further compromise on ending the near-century-old practice of linking children’s education with fluctuating timber harvests.

The administration also opposes bill language allowing counties to set aside 20 percent of these payments to spend on community projects besides public education, roads or other authorized purposes. A similar plan awaits Senate action.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the House bill, if enacted, could increase direct federal spending in those counties by $173 million in fiscal 2000.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.