Gardner, 24 colleagues seek short-term reauthorization of Secure Rural Schools program

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and a bipartisan group of 24 other senators urged U.S. Senate leadership to include at least a one-year reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program in any end-of-year legislative package.

In response to declining timber sales across the nation, Congress first passed SRS in 2000 to provide some compensation to counties having tracts of federally owned, tax-exempt forestlands. Since then, the SRS has become a vital lifeline for more than 775 counties across some 40 states because it contributes funding to support roughly 4,400 schools, as well as local road maintenance, law enforcement, and search and rescue operations.

“However, the most recent SRS reauthorization expired at the end of the last fiscal year, which means the last authorized payments to counties will go to participating states and counties in early calendar year 2019,” wrote Sen. Gardner and his colleagues in a Nov. 28 letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY).

“Congress has an obligation to ensure counties with swaths of tax-exempt forestlands can adequately provide essential services for their residents,” according to their letter, which Sen. Gardner signed along with members including U.S. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Steve Daines (R-MT), Mike Rounds (R-SD), Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Michael Bennet (D-CO).

The senators wrote that the federal government has historically shared 25 percent of timber harvest revenues from federal Forest Service lands and 50 percent of timber harvest revenues from federal Oregon and California Grant Lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management with county governments.

“Without the certainty of these critical safety-net payments, schools, libraries, and jails are closing. Schools that remain open will see a reduction of teachers,” they wrote. “Roads go unpaved and become unsafe. Mental and physical health services are scaled back or even ended. Fewer and fewer law enforcement officers are forced to patrol larger and larger areas.”

A short-term reauthorization of at least one year is critical to provide fiscal certainty for forested counties, they added.