Forest Service land sale is 'DOA'

WASHINGTON -- A Bush administration plan to aid rural counties by selling off U.S. Forest Service land collapsed quickly on Capitol Hill.

"It's DOA," Tuolumne County Supervisor Richard Pland said this week.

Now, with the clock ticking and key questions unanswered, Congress must craft its own solution for helping counties blessed with more trees than tax revenues. It's a multimillion-dollar issue for California, where many counties rely on funding that seems shaky.

"We have school districts that are right on the brink," Lassen County Superintendent of Schools Robert L. Owens warned Wednesday.

Owens, Pland and nearly 200 other rural county representatives swarmed Capitol Hill this week seeking solutions. Tuolumne County sent nine representatives, but 38 of California's 58 counties have a direct stake in what happens next.

The 38 counties, and hundreds like them in other states, contain Forest Service land. They used to receive federal funding tied to timber harvest revenues. The money was used for schools and public works.

But as logging declined, federal dollars shrunk. In 2000, Congress severed the connection to timber harvesting, and guaranteed counties funding. Last year, that amounted to $68 million for California. With the funding about to expire, the fight now is over how to keep this money flowing.

Fresno County, for instance, received $2.8 million in federal payments last year. Tuolumne and Tulare counties, with payments reaching $2.6 million and $1.1 million respectively, also were among the top recipients.

"Especially in the smaller districts, it has a real impact on educational opportunities," said Mark Martinez, Tulare County Office of Education accounting officer.

Tulare County, for instance, uses some of the funds to hire teacher's aides and for a science and conservation program, Martinez said.

In search of $4 billion

Sometimes, spending choices elicit questions.

Tuolumne County, for instance, used federal funds to buy a $9,000 snowmobile for a search-and-rescue team based at Pinecrest Lake. The county also bought coloring books and a playhouse to teach children about fire prevention, and to fill in budget holes.

An independent 2006 evaluation suggested some of the Tuolumne County spending "comes at the expense" of other programs that Congress intended, but local officials defend their decisions.

The 2000 law ran out last year. Congress extended funding until Dec. 31 this year.

"Urgency is the name of the game now," Pland's wife, Audrey, told a staffer for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, on Wednesday.

Wearing bright green polo shirts and wielding fact sheets, the rural county representatives hopscotched through congressional offices and encountered subtle but significant political dilemmas.

Nunes and more than 120 other House members have endorsed legislation that essentially extends the 2000 funding law for an additional five years. The problem is finding some $4 billion needed to pay for the bill.

Sen. Craig had funding bill

Bush administration officials last year proposed selling off unwanted Forest Service land, including an estimated 85,000 acres in California, as a source of rural county funding.

Few supported the idea. Congressional Democrats led by Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon subsequently proposed new fees or fee increases for commercial use of federal land.

Republicans largely oppose fee hikes, undermining that proposal.

"(Establishing) new fees through regulation does not provide a realistic approach," Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey testified to a House panel in late July.

The political problems are aggravated by the role played by Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, who introduced a rural funding bill. Craig is expected to resign later this month, after pleading guilty to reduced mis-demeanor charges in a bathroom sex sting.

"We could have done without it," Pland said of Craig's embarrassing political demise.

Pland insisted Craig's woes will not kill the bill. Nonetheless, one realistic scenario is for a stymied Congress to simply extend funding for another year and leave the bigger fight to another day.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.