Wyden, Merkley fight to save ‘lifeline’ for rural communities

WASHINGTON – Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., urged the Senate Thursday to keep the government’s promise to rural communities in Oregon, 40 other states and Puerto Rico by passing legislation that would provide vital funding for schools, law enforcement and essential road repairs.

Since payments through the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) Act expired last year, Wyden and Merkley have been working to reauthorize the program to ensure counties will receive a payment next spring that gives them certainty for funding critical county services in rural areas.

But congressional leaders blocked their efforts, citing the contention that increased timber management could somehow replace the SRS payments. In doing so, the senators said, they ignored estimates from the Forest Service concluding that logging on public lands would have to increase by 400 percent in order for timber revenues to match what counties have received in SRS investments.

“The notion that these investments in rural communities could be killed and replaced with logging alone is disconnected from reality,” Wyden said. “I will continue to pursue a comprehensive, reality-based approach to get these counties the funding they have long relied on.

“That comprehensive approach includes creating jobs in the woods through responsible forest management, including hazardous fuels reduction and sustainable biomass production, increasing outdoor recreation opportunities, boosting renewable energy jobs, and promoting our state’s growing agricultural diversity, from raspberries to industrial hemp, all while protecting clean air and clean water for all Oregonians.”

“We need to honor the promise to these counties. We need to address the Secure Rural Schools program that provides a strong foundation and a strong commitment to the promise made to rural forested counties,” said Merkley. “We need to act, and we need to act now.”

Over the last two years, the senators said Republican leaders have blocked numerous bipartisan bills and amendments to extend SRS, including their Secure Rural Schools and Payments in Lieu of Taxes Repair Act of 2015, as well as amendments to the 2015 national transportation bill, the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, the North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2016, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

More recently, Wyden and Merkley sought to extend this vital program by including it in the end-of-year, must-pass bill to fund the government, as well as on an energy conference bill that stalled in Congress this week. But because of congressional leadership’s inaction, the payments counties received in the spring of 2016 will be their last until congressional leadership agrees to extend these crucial programs.

Last year’s SRS funds were paid to the counties in March 2016 and include payments from the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. In Oregon, 33 counties received a total of $95 million in Secure Rural Schools payments this year. Over its lifetime, the program has brought almost $4 billion to Oregon’s timber counties and schools all across the state.

Wyden co-authored the original SRS legislation in 2000 with then-Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.