Northwest Montana counties will soon receive more than $8.5 million in payments from the U.S. Forest Service, thanks to reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools program. Mineral County received nearly $1 million in funding.
Under this program, created by Congress in 2000, the Forest Service compensates county governments with forested federal land for revenue lost due to dropping timber production. These funds are intended for schools and other critical services, like roads and law enforcement.
It expired in September 2015, but was reauthorized in the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill lawmakers passed in March.
On Monday, the Forest Service released the retroactive Fiscal Year 2017 payments that counties can expect.
Flathead County’s payment is about $1.56 million; Lincoln County’s, $4.10 million; Sanders County’s, $1.66 million; and Glacier County’s, about $37,000.
All three members of the state’s congressional delegation cheered the program’s return. In a press release, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., stated that “these much-needed funds are critical for Montana’s rural counties who have fallen on hard economic times due to declining timber harvests and natural resource production.”
Rep. Greg Gianforte, R.-Mont., stated in an email that “today’s announcement brings needed, promised funds to Montana’s rural counties. I am committed to enacting a long-term solution that gets us managing our forests again, brings greater certainty to Montana counties and begins to make our communities whole.”
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., also cast it as vital for local services. Without the program, he said, “roads go unpaved, emergency services suffer, and schools lose out on critical resources.”
“That’s why I’ve been relentless in my efforts to reauthorize [Secure Rural Schools] and bring this much-needed funding back to Montana counties as we look for more responsible ways to cut debt and spending.”
“We are so pleased that the Omnibus bill passed in March with funds for Mineral County along with many other counties to receive SRS money,” said Deborah Frandsen, the Regional Director for Sen. Tester, at the Mineral County Commissioners meeting last Thursday.
The first round of Secure Rural Schools payments for Fiscal Year 2017 went out in February, before the program was authorized. Those payments were calculated using the expired formula, making them a fraction of what they would be under the reauthorized formula, Frandsen explained. With the reauthorizing, 2017 payments have been recalculated using the proper formula and this funding is being allocated to make up the difference.
The initial payment totaled $71,291 and approximately $885,000 added to total a little over $956,000. Mineral County Commissioners said they wouldn’t be able to run the county without those funds. Taxing the roughly 5,000 county residents would be “undoable” said Commissioner Laurie Johnston.