U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, yesterday held an oversight hearing to examine federal payments to local governments provided through the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) and Community Self-Determination Act and the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program. She also cosponsored bipartisan legislation introduced today by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to reauthorize the SRS program.
The Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing explored the need for the federal government to provide greater fiscal certainty for resource-dependent communities with tax-exempt federal lands. In her opening statement, Murkowski spoke to the challenges faced by rural communities, both in Alaska and across the United States, when the federal government prevents resource development—jeopardizing not only their economic survival, but also the health of the nation’s forests and grasslands.
“Alaska’s story is not unique—boroughs, counties, and parishes around the country with large swaths of federal lands face real challenges in developing sustainable economies,” Murkowski said. “Many communities, once reliant on timber production, have seen little come in behind the mills that shuttered. Reducing timber production has not been particularly good for the health of our forests, either. It has created a wildfire problem of epic proportions across much of the American West, with more than 40 percent of the national forest system in need of some kind of hazardous fuel reduction treatment.”
Murkowski also spoke to many communities’ ever-increasing reliance on federal funding, largely due to declining timber receipts. Increasing access to federal lands can play a critical role in the economic development and recovery of these communities. She encouraged committee members to think creatively about funding payments for tax-exempt lands, including taking a look at other management models for federal lands that could generate more revenue.
“Congress must act for the health of our forests and for the survival of our rural communities,” Murkowski said. “In the short-term, we must work together to continue the SRS and PILT programs. However, we must find better solutions in the long-term that will help provide the jobs and economic activity our rural and forested communities so desperately need.”
To support the SRS program in the short-term, Murkowski today cosponsored new legislation reauthorizing it through 2018, to help ensure vital support to essential public services for more than 775 boroughs, counties, and parishes across the country.
“This bill is a temporary fix to long-term problems that demand policy reforms, but as we pursue those, it will provide crucial funding to help keep our forest dependent communities whole,” Murkowski said. “The only real solution is to have our federal lands managed in a way that will promote economic activity and generate jobs. I appreciate the leadership of Sens. Hatch and Wyden on this bill, and look forward to working with them to advance it into law.”
Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, has long supported programs like SRS and PILT, as they provide necessary funding for services ranging from public schooling to emergency services and roads in Alaska. She is a staunch advocate for the responsible management of our national forests and will continue working with her colleagues on bipartisan solutions to ensure greater access to our nation’s federal lands for economic development. This is particularly important for Alaska, as the Forest Service alone controls 22 million acres of land in the state, including 17 million acres in the southeast region.
As chairman of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, Murkowski was able to include full funding for the PILT program in the omnibus bill that will fund the federal government for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2017. PILT will receive $465 million, which will ensure local governments throughout Alaska are compensated for vital public services.