The House Agriculture Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition, and Forestry, led by Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), today held a hearing to review a proposal put forth by a national coalition of school board leaders to resolve the continuing problems facing rural communities under the "twenty-five percent county payment" system.
"Our national forests are in desperate need of management. Our schools are in desperate need of money. Our rural economies are in desperate need of stability," Goodlatte said. "Reason and common sense tell us the obvious answer. Manage the forest to improve forest health. The twenty-five percent payments generated will nourish our schools. The jobs created will heal rural economies. But our government is not doing this. Washington has proven that it does not know best. The compact is broken, and it needs to be fixed."
In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation establishing what is now called the "twenty-five percent payment" to counties. This law is a historic compact between the government and local communities within the national forest system meant to alleviate the financial burden on rural areas to fund schools and roads. Because the Forest Service is the dominant landowner in these communities, and communities are powerless to tax the agency, the government shares twenty-five percent of the revenue derived from national forest activities with the surrounding localities. The communities then use this revenue to finance schools and local roads.
In recent years, federal timber sales have plummeted by over seventy-five percent from historic averages. Twenty-five percent payments have dropped in some communities by as much as ninety percent. Schools have canceled classes, cut teachers, eliminated extracurricular activities, and cut corners in every conceivable way to keep their doors open. Local economies have been decimated and families dislocated as parents desperately seek to make ends meet.
"Tragically, in the middle of this chaos are innocent school children who look to their parents, to their teachers, to their communities, and to their government for quality education and quality of life," Goodlatte said. "Ironically, this calamity in our rural schools and communities comes at a time of growing calamity in our national forests as forty million acres of national forest are at risk of catastrophic fire and twenty-six million acres are at high risk of insect and disease mortality."
Witnesses testifying today are part of a national grass roots movement called the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition. This coalition, which represents nearly 400 organizations in over 30 states, presented its set of principles for addressing the twenty-five percent payment problem.
"It is time to restore a future for our rural school children. It is time to mend our broken rural communities. And it is time to put the homegrown ideas of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition to the test," said Goodlatte. "This is where it all starts. I look forward to rolling up my sleeves and working together toward success."