Sequestration Impact on Timber and Public Land Issues in States
The U.S.Forest Service has ruled that funds generated in 2012 from timber sales and distributed to states will be subject to the Budget Control Act. States stand to lose almost $18 million in funding for projects in rural areas, including schools, public safety and transportation needs.
Although the amounts may seem small compared to the overall size of state budgets, letters sent by U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell demanding states return $17.9 million in funds generated from timber harvesting on federal lands due to spending cuts imposed by the sequester have generated significant bipartisan concern in Congress and states.1
- The federal government owns roughly 28 percent—or approximately 640 million acres—of land in the U.S., according to information provided by the General Services Administration.
- The U.S. Forest Service within the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior primarily manage this land.3
- This figure, however, does not include the roughly 19 million acres managed by the Department of Defense or the 125 million acres of marine refuges, monuments and land managed by the Department of Energy or Bureau of Reclamation.4
- On a proportional basis, the federal government owns significantly more land in Western states than in states east of the Mississippi River. For example, the federal government owns 0.3 percent of land in Connecticut compared to 81 percent of land in Nevada.
- Many counties and localities surrounded by or containing significant public land holdings can experience an acute impact on economic development because of their limited property tax base for school funding, road construction and other needed projects and programs.
- To address some of these hardships, the federal government administers and manages programs like Payment In Lieu of Taxes, which collect funds generated from oil and gas leasing, grazing or other economic activities on public land that is given back to rural states and communities to pay for infrastructure, schools and public safety needs. In 2012, the Department of Interior announced a record $393 million in Payment In Lieu of Taxes funding.5
- The modern iteration of that long-standing policy is the Secure Schools and Community Self Determination Act, which was first passed in 2000. In January 2013, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $323 million in funding for 41 states to support local schools and road construction as a part of the one-year authorization Congress passed in 2012.6
- Communities in the Pacific Northwest and West have heavily relied on this funding due to a loss in income because of a decline in timber sales related to logging prohibitions and protection of endangered species like the spotted owl.
- The U.S. Forest Service has directed 41 states to return a portion of the funds that were dispersed under the Secure Rural Schools formula just two months prior.
- The governors of Alabama, Alaska and Wyoming have publicly refused the agency’s request to return the funding, which would have meant a loss of almost $1 million for schools and localities. The governors noted that the Forest Service sent the funds to the state in January 2013, two months before the automatic spending cuts required by the sequester took effect, and they believe there is no legal justification to return money their states are legally entitled to under federal law.7
- In an April 2013 Forest Service budget hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Tidwell responded during questioning that states would face interest, penalties and administrative costs for failure to comply with the sequester repayment demand. Wyden, the committee chair, and ranking member Lisa Murkowski criticized the decision and challenged the legal requirement of imposing fines or penalties in the Budget Control Act, which authorized the sequester.8
- In addition, critics of the Forest Service’s decision suggested its sequester interpretation is largely subjective. Other branches of the federal government, like the Bureau of Land Management, have not taken the same posture with the county payment programs they administers for rural states.