May 22, 2013
Washington, D.C. – Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today renewed their call for the U.S. Forest Service to end its threat to take more money from states that do not return payments made to timber communities under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act.
In a hearing before the committee last month, Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell told committee members that states that did not pay back 5.1 percent of payments received – $18 million – would be subject to penalties, interest payments and administrative costs, as part of the across-the-board federal budget cuts known as “sequestration.”
In a letter sent to the senators this week, Chief Tidwell said, “where applicable,” the Forest Service would waive the added costs and work to find ways to lessen the financial impacts on states.
“While a promise to work together and waive penalties ‘where applicable’ is a good start, it’s not good enough for rural communities in Oregon and across the country,” Wyden said. “The Forest Service should commit to waive penalties and interest for states that cannot repay Secure Rural Schools funds, instead of threatening to take more money away from communities that desperately need it to fund schools, roads and emergency services.”
“It’s fundamentally unfair for the Forest Service to ask states to repay these vital funds. To continue to suggest that they might be penalized if they don’t, just adds insult to injury. Unfortunately, this decision is just the latest in a long line of misguided Forest Service actions that have had a crippling impact on timber-dependent communities. It is time for the Forest Service to find a different path forward,” Murkowski said.
The senators first asked the Forest Service to drop its threat of requiring states to bear additional financial burdens if they could not pay back money given to them through the Secure Rural Schools program in a letter sent to Chief Tidwell on April 24.
The Secure Rural Schools program funds emergency services, roads and schools in communities in 42 states, at a time when many rural counties face limited budgets.
The Forest Service originally sent out the full amount of payments early this year. Several months later, the agency requested counties return the payments as a result of the mandatory federal budget cuts. In the April 24 letter, the senators stressed that rural communities should not be penalized for the Forest Service’s failure to plan for the impact of sequestration on SRS payments.