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Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act 2.0

by Jeff Gruber
| July 26, 2013 12:40 PM

 Over the past four weeks, I have written about Libby and the severe economic challenges confronting it.  Not wanting our community to forget what once was possible here, I included a brief synopsis of Libby’s once lively and progressive natural resource-based culture and economy.  

The historian residing in me can’t help but feel that the way out of these troubled times can be found in once again looking towards what once formed the bedrock of our community. There are several reasons I feel the need to enact a “reset” and look once again towards the lands and forests surrounding Libby to construct a foundational basis for Libby’s present and future community.  

Gone from Libby is the symbiotic relationship between the Forest Service and corporate timberlands funneling timber to a large and progressive wood-conversion facility. The mill complex has mostly been auctioned and hauled to the four corners of the world to be operated by new owners. The corporate timberlands now belong to Plum Creek Timber Company, which feed their own mills in Flathead County.  Plum Creek is a private entity with property rights aligned only for enhancing shareholder equity, not community well-being. 

Therefore, I am proposing focusing on the public lands (Forest Service) in Lincoln County for a change in our economic dialogue.  

What I propose is the need for a bedrock economic base from which a functioning and sustaining community can operate – one in which people living in Libby can feel constancy and sustenance and envision themselves being able to create their own version of the American Dream. Using natural resources can be a future economic foundation for Libby and other rural communities. It won’t be the whole fix, but it will at least provide a keystone of support and a measure from which to nurture an economic heartbeat for our community’s future.   

Currently, how do we define and describe our economic foundation? What is it based on? Transfer payments from corporate and government pensions and welfare programs is presently the main driver of income for Libby residents. And, looking ahead, the future for both isn’t entirely rosy.  

All communities possess unique qualities and attributes that affect how residents craft their livelihood. In Libby, our remoteness and lack of arterial transportation infrastructure limits a tourism-based economic foundation. From Libby’s beginnings, town fathers have branded Libby’s aesthetic appeal hoping to attract tourists to come and spend time frolicking in the surrounding wilds. We have always been happy to share our natural splendors with whomever wants to come and experience them with us. But, as Libby’s gray winters and long spring warm-ups attest, the dull season doesn’t draw visitors in large numbers, making a year-round tourism economy a marginal proposition for too few businesses and entrepreneurs.  

Communities in transition offer one amenity for new arrivals – affordable housing. Newcomers to the area enjoy shorter commutes interrupted by only six stoplights and the quieter, slower paced lifestyle they escaped. Move to Libby and enjoy nature’s playground with us. But, don’t plan on easily finding living-wage jobs. The equation for this demographic subgroup mandates outside sources of income.  

Primary jobs (logging and harvesting of natural resources) and secondary jobs (manufacturing,) ones that create and bring in new dollars, are what’s sorely lacking in Libby. The misaligned dynamic of Libby’s present economy is basically stated by too many service businesses (tertiary jobs) chasing too few dollars.  This reality is what puts the stressed and worried looks on the faces of Libby’s business community.  

Three reasons I think a change in Forest Service timber management is warranted:  

• The former 25 percent receipts earmark that benefited county roads and schools needs to return.  Replaced in 2000 by the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, this funding source is not permanent, having to be renewed by Congress annually. The Act originally expired in 2006, was renewed for one year in 2007, for four more years in 2008, and one more year in 2012, though each renewal was at reduced levels. Incredibly, 2013 saw the federal government request Lincoln County return 5 percent of its earmark to the United States Treasury because of sequestration.  

• Timber is sorely needed by surrounding mills. Increased harvests on the Kootenai and surrounding national forests will readily be absorbed by the present operating mills all running at reduced capacity because of the perpetual log shortages existing in the inland forest  region.  

•Lincoln County needs manufacturing jobs. In 2008, the latest year data was available, just 4.7 percent of worker compensation in Lincoln County came from manufacturing. This was down from 17 percent in 2001.  

On the Kootenai, average sale volume between 2002-2012 was 46 million board feet a year, the total averaging 25-30 percent non-saw material. So, the Kootenai’s timber program, supposedly operating on the guidelines under its 1987 forest plan and its 150 million board feet Allowable Sale Quantity, produces only 20 percent to 30 percent of its potential, much of the total being tallied includes tree tops, post and pole material, firewood, and cuttings from tree-thinning projects (non-saw). Certainly, the timber currently offered isn’t close to what is needed for present mill needs, and is not annually offered in a predicable manner. 

How to “fix” the Forest Service is the essential question. Obviously, it is an agency out of touch with accountability and the needs of society. It would certainly take legislation from Congress to end the morass and allow for increased timber being cut. Certainly, the fix for the Forest Service is not a partisan question. The steady decline in the timber cut for the past 20 plus years has been a downward spiral whether Democrats or Republicans control Congress or occupy the Oval Office.  

Here is a scenario that could serve as a starting point for analysis: The last forest plan created for the Kootenai National Forest in 1987 identified 1.26 million acres of the Kootenai National Forest’s 2.25 million acres of land for timber management. For the sake of rough analysis and simple mathematics, I propose identifying 1 million acres of the Kootenai for present timber management.  

These 1 million acres would be managed for timber harvests averaging 100 million board feet per year.  This harvest figure is calculated by using the Montana Department of Natural Resources data. The Libby DNRC Unit encompasses approximately 33,000 acres and annually harvests between 3 million and 5 million board feet a year. The Montana DNRC timber program operates under two provisions – its harvest must be both silviculturally and ecologically sustainable, and it must provide income for Montana’s school funding. So, harvesting 100 million board feet a year from 1 million acres of Kootenai Forest timberlands is in line with established and progressive management principles.  

Also, it lies roughly between the highest sale volumes ever, 268 million board feet in 1988, and today’s lows in the 20 million to 30 million board feet per year range.  

With an average sale price of $150 per thousand board feet, this sale volume would bring in $15 million in forest receipts. If the Secure Schools act was dropped and counties could once again receive the 25 percent share, then $3.75 million would be available for county coffers. Though this total is somewhat less than the $4.43 million Lincoln County received for 2013, it would still be more reliable than the Secure Schools money as that total is reduced yearly and, by design, will sunset in the future.  

Not only would an active timber program benefit Lincoln County government budgets, but it would also lead to an increase in loggers operating in the woods. Using the multiplier of 13 direct logging jobs in the woods for every 1 million board feet of logged timber, a 100-million-board-foot timber program equates to 130 loggers operating in the Kootenai. These jobs would also have a multiplier effect on local businesses employing more mechanics, fuel distributors, parts suppliers and various tertiary jobs in support of the new primary jobs.  

Mills depending on this timber volume located in Flathead, Sanders and neighboring Boundary County are screaming for timber. Because of perpetual timber shortages, these neighboring mills are all running at reduced capacity. And any mill manager will tell you that a mill operating at less than capacity is inefficient and expensive to operate because of the many fixed costs for manpower and equipment amortized by too few manufactured products for sale. Compounding the inefficiency of running at less than full capacity is the fact that what timber is served up by the Forest Service is driven to high prices in the competitive-bidding arena.  

Ideally, logging more timber on the Kootenai would provide raw material for a milling facility in Libby or somewhere in Lincoln County providing badly needed secondary jobs. That would probably not happen because the surrounding mills already in operation would rapidly absorb any increased timber production. However, if the “fix” for the Kootenai was replicated on other forests in Region One, then the increased timber supply would be available for local utilization in a new, local milling complex or complexes. How many new jobs would be created by a new milling facility is nebulous, dependent on factors such as timber volume, size and specie, and markets. What is for certain, though, is this cannot and will not happen with current Forest Service policy.  

So, simply stated, a change in the Forest Service timber program would lead to a growth in the primary and secondary jobs so much needed locally.  

For this scenario to happen, several changes in Forest Service management would have to take place. The 100-million-board-feet average must be predictable and stable. To continue with current management protocol would be foolhardy.  

Two laws need to be revised to once again allow for the United States Forest Service timber program to operate. The Equal Access to Justice Act, passed by Congress in 1980, and the Endangered Species Act, first passed in 1973. The two pieces of legislation, both needed and important in today’s society, are in dire need of congressional revision allowing for adequate Forest Service managements benefiting Lincoln County and other rural areas of our country.   

In reading both laws, as originally proposed and passed, it is clear that how they are being interpreted and enforced in regards to natural-resource management is not following their original intent. Not even close.  

The Equal Access to Justice Act was a good idea when it was first conceived. Passed by Congress in 1980, it gives citizens the right to sue the federal government, and if successful, get their legal costs reimbursed. This act was meant to allow citizens to be able to sue “city hall,” or this sense, the United States government, and not be intimidated by the huge costs that would naturally be incurred.  

But the EAJA has become almost the exclusive domain of the environmental community in its relentless pursuit of the United States Forest Service. File a lawsuit against a proposed timber sale, list 50 grievances and hope the court finds cause on just one of the points. Then, the group gets reimbursed attorney fees and “associated costs.”  

It has become a cottage industry for various conservation groups and has all but hamstrung any semblance of natural-resource program in the Forest Service. An op-ed article in the March 19, 2007 Missoulian states “the EAJA has become a self-funding mechanism for environmental groups fundamentally opposed to prevailing national forest management.”  

The EAJA needs to be altered by Congress to allow for any hope of a coherent timber program to operate in the Forest Service.  

The Endangered Species Act is the vehicle by which serial litigants sue the Forest Service. Once a threatened species becomes endangered, then it becomes extremely difficult to propose land-management actions. The law is focused primarily on preventing mortality, so basically the Forest Service has to prove that their management actions will not cause undo harm to resident populations of endangered critters.  But, what is lacking in the law is how land actions might cause long-term benefits in their habitat. For example, to grow more huckleberries for grizzlies needing more of their favorite food source, openings need to be created in our overstocked forests.  

The Endangered Species Act is focused on preventing mortality of species instead of trying to grow the species through habitat enhancement. What good does it do to keep airlifting endangered grizzly bears to the Kootenai when there is not enough quality habitat for them to survive?  

Congressional legislation revising the Equal Access to Justice Act and the Endangered Species Act is both needed and warranted. If Congress proposed and passed fixes for these two acts, then possibly the Kootenai National Forest and its personnel could return to having an active natural resource management program.    

Another approach could be for the Forest Service to place the designated timberlands under a different management regime than its other lands, such as sensitive-species habitat, old growth and wilderness.  The timberlands could then be exempt from the rigorous analysis as mandated by the National Environment Policy Act. This NEPA analysis, when applied to the cost of a Forest Service timber sale, adds 70 percent to the cost of the sale preparation. 

On the Kootenai, the majority of the forest would still be governed under the stringent guidelines presently in place. But, the obtrusive analysis for the timberlands would be streamlined so that a stable and predictable timber program could operate for the betterment of communities and the forests badly in need of management. Or, possibly, it could result in permitting a mine to create products sorely needed by our modern economy.  

Finally, a different scenario would be for Congress to legislate transfer of ownership and management of designated timber lands to the Montana DNRC. With its two-fold mission of silviculturally and ecologically sustainable timber management and providing income for Montana’s schools, then a predictable and stable timber supply would happen.  

Comparing management by the Forest Service and the Montana DNRC is simple. Montana has a mandate, in the state Constitution, to provide funding on school trust lands for the Montana education system. But, it’s not without environmental regulation. All projects go through environmental analysis and have to be approved by the Montana Land Board made up by the heads of Montana’s five executive agencies. Some projects are appealed or litigated. But, with their clear constitutional mandate, needless and frivolous litigation is thrown out and projects are able to be moved forward. 

What I have proposed is not an easy fix, and is not entirely in line with our contemporary way of doing things. But, as I have tried to illustrate the past five weeks, the present modus operandi is severely broken as evidenced in many ways. It’s what happens when a slow-moving government is hijacked by political and environmental dogma.  

As a community, we can address the issue by speaking together in a united voice saying “it’s broken.”  “Please fix it.” Leaders, institutions, and laws are in place to rectify our dilemma. All it takes is for Libby and other like-minded communities to have the fortitude and resolve to insist Congress fulfill its legislative obligation.  

In 1944, with the United States laying plans to bring World War II to a close, Congress passed Public Law 273 which advocated stabilization of rural, timber dependent communities through wise use and allocation of natural resources. If Congress found time and had the wherewithal to pass that progressive legislation during a major world conflict, then what is there to keep them from doing it today?

But, it takes a new dialogue, a new direction for Libby and all rural, timber dependent communities. We can’t continue to allow for Forest Service inaction by readily accepting Congress’ annual “fix” in Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination monies. Another welfare program is not what Lincoln County or our residents need. Once again, it is time for Forest Service lands to begin contributing to the financial and social well-being of rural communities like Libby.  

County commissioners, school boards, town councils, the Libby Chamber of Commerce, economic development agencies, teachers unions and other groups need to voice out against Forest Service and congressional inaction on the Kootenai and how their lack of direction pose threats to our well-being. For too long, our community has been quiet and allowed conservation groups and Forest Service agency inaction to have their way. 

Let me put it to you in a different way.

Take Liberty County, just across the continental divide, as an example. It’s economy is largely (97 percent) based on agriculture, mostly dry-land farming. What if a governmental agency announced that due to federal management policies, 70 percent of its farmland would now be off limits to continued farming? What would happen to its schools, businesses, towns and tax collections? How many of the former farmers, ranchers, implement dealer employees and mechanics would leave to the Bakken oil fields to find work?  

Would the residents of Liberty County agree to this new management? Of course not. So why should timber dependent communities?

When I started writing these articles, I promised to “propose several solutions that will hopefully at least raise a new awareness of our shared community.” Hopefully, I have done that and have given you a greater sense of our shared past and present. Hopefully, with our understanding of the issues surrounding Libby’s plight, a solution just might be crafted.  

I don’t see a panacea when it comes to economic development in Libby. As I’ve stated before, there are no easy fixes. What the future holds, no one knows except those with possession of 20/20 crystal ball views of what’s ahead.  

After teaching for 23 years, I have learned that students, athletes and sports teams achieve what they see themselves doing. Put positive, achievable and realistic expectations in front of them, then they have something to shoot for. Aimlessly plodding from day to day, without clear or coherent direction, does not provide for positive outcomes.  

Thank you for reading.  

(This is the fifth of a five-part series of columns by Jeff Gruber analyzing the economic challenges facing Libby.)