Doolittle asks for help convincing Senate to fund schools and roads
“Please make sure that senators (Diane) Feinstein and (Barbara) Boxer are well aware of this problem,” Doolittle said at a Tuesday, Feb. 20 Town Hall meeting in Susanville.
The loss equals two-fifths of the county road department’s $4 million annual operating budget.
“That’s 40 percent of our operating budget,” County Public Works Director Larry Millar said on Thursday, Feb. 22. “We’d have to probably cut service and probably reduce some of our crews.”
Reducing service might mean closing some roads during winter storms instead of paying road crews to plow them.
“It might come to where we might not plow A-21 or some route that’s not necessarily an emergency route,” Millar said. “We’d just close those off temporarily.”
Reducing maintenance also would mean less asphalt patching, grading, crack sealing and weed cutting. Millar said he’s already planning not to hire new employees when there are vacancies and retirements.
Facing a crowd of about 150 people in the Commercial Building at the Lassen County Fairgrounds, Doolittle called federal funding for forest county schools and roads “a lifeblood for rural communities.”
For more than 90 years the federal government gave 25 percent of timber sales and other receipts from each national forest to split evenly between county schools and road departments.
After timber sales began a dramatic decline in the 1980s, Congress passed PL 106-393, the "Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000.” SRS gave Lassen County up to $4 million a year, based on what it historically received from timber sales and other forest receipts. It expired on Sept. 30, 2006.
Because payments come in a year after they are budgeted, Lassen County won’t suffer the major loss of funds until the 2007-2008 budget, which the Board of Supervisors will consider in September.
Board Chairman Brian Dahle asked Doolittle, “What would you suggest we do to try to get the appropriation from the legislature?”
Doolittle said he’d like to see a return to cutting timber on national forests.
“Then you’d be getting your revenues, we’d be keeping the forest clean, people would have good-paying jobs,” Doolittle said. “It worked very well for a number of decades. Unfortunately, I think that world has changed and I don’t think we ought to bank on it coming back.”
Despite his efforts to move the forest service back to allowing timber harvesting, Doolittle said, “We need to have another source to properly compensate the counties.”
Saying he welcomed ideas from anyone with suggestions on how to fund forest county schools and roads, Doolittle said the local plan of action should be to let California’s Senate delegation know how dramatically the loss of funding affects Lassen County.
Local residents may mention the impact on the Lassen County’s 900 miles of maintained roads. In fiscal 2006-07, the county road department received $1.7 million in SRS funding, County Auditor Karen Fouch said.
“If we go back to timber receipts, that will be cut to $170,000,” she said.
However, SRS also funds work to reduce the fire danger. The board allocated about $600,000 a year for forest health projects, including ongoing work by the Lassen County Fire Safe Council to reduce the danger of catastrophic wild fire. The board allocated $122,400 in SRS Title III funds to the council for planning, grant writing, collaboration and education at its Feb. 13 meeting.
“It’s going to be a huge impact not just for the county but for these forest health projects,” Fouch said.
President Bush proposed funding SRS for five years through sale of about 40,000 acres of excess public lands by the U.S. Forest Service. Many groups objected to the plan.
“Selling public lands is going nowhere,” Dahle said on Thursday, Feb. 22, adding forest counties may get some funding out of the federal farm bill currently under consideration.
Doolittle said if Congress couldn’t implement the land sales when Republicans were in control, it won’t happen now that Democrats run both houses.
“The federal government owns way too much land,” the congressman said. “Even if you believe they ought to keep in reserve all these national forests like they do, you could acknowledge that where they own unconnected parts, and so forth, that aren’t useful to the national forests, we could sell those off.”
The land sales make logical sense; “It just, so far, hasn’t made political sense,” Doolittle said.
As a member of the forest counties and schools coalition, Lassen County Superintendent of Schools Bob Owens said the Forest Service already has the right to acquire and dispose of properties but the coalition needs to look at permanent solutions.
Owens said the loss of SRS funds will have a greater impact on Plumas and Sierra counties, which received more money from the act. He said Plumas County had “the highest per capita school funding after Beverly Hills when they were cutting timber.”
Claire LaGanga, who spoke at the town hall meeting saying she is a resident of Lassen County but the principal of Loyalton High School in Sierra County, said, “We are looking at, maybe one more year of functioning and then that’s it if something does not come through for us.”
Owens also advocates more timber harvesting to reduce the amount of excess, dead and dying trees that fuel forest fires so hot they create their own weather.
“I believe all of us are environmentalists,” Owens said. “We don’t want to see our forest burn up. This valley fills with smoke every summer.”
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