Timber! There goes the budget

Montana State Roundup

Published March 1, 2008  | March 2008 issue

First a decline in timber harvests from national forests cut into county budgets in western Montana. Now forested counties face even deeper cuts if Congress doesn't reauthorize a program that has shielded rural schools and road systems from the financial fallout of less logging. Lincoln County stands to lose $3.6 million, Flathead County about $1.9 million and Missoula County roughly $800,000, according to the Montana Association of Counties. Statewide losses could be as high as $15 million, forcing county governments that have come to depend on the federal money to either raise taxes or reduce services.

Counties that are part of national forests receive 25 percent of the proceeds from logging, mining, grazing and recreation on forestland. Traditionally, the money has supplemented funding for schools and roads. But since the early 1990s, those payments have declined along with the amount of timber sold by the U.S. Forest Service.

Congress enacted the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act in 2000 to offset those revenue losses and renewed it for one year in 2006. The act is set to expire in July; in January county governments in the state received their last checks from the program. Montana's federal lawmakers favor reauthorizing the money, but Congress isn't likely to take up the matter until spring.

Phil Davies