Tuesday, January 6, 2009
If You Pave It, They Will Come
One problem with writing “newsy” posts a bit ahead of time: sometimes the news changes. I originally wrote this piece about the U.S. Forest Service allowing developers to pave old Forest Service timber roads yesterday evening; this morning when I opened The Washington Post in my gmail inbox I saw the following headline: “Timber Firm Drops Road-Use Request - Deal With Forest Service Raised Concern.” As you’ll see from my revised post, I really welcome this change.
A couple of days ago, I saw another item in The Post—the headline read: “U.S. Forest Policy Is Set to Change, Aiding Developer - Shift Would Let Firm Pave Logging Roads.” Anyone who’s interested in development, especially in the West, should be following this story, because the sop thrown to a very large development firm by current USDA Undersecretary for Natural Resources & the Environment Mark Rey (himself an ex-timber lobbyist & a Bush appointee) would have a lot of ramifications. Even tho the development firm, Plum Creek Timber, has now rejected this (which I applaud), the issues raised are worth examining.
I covered the Adams County Commissioners for our local paper (The Adams County Record) for several years; Eberle had covered them before me (she then moved on to the “city” beat); & I generally liked the four Commissioners I got to know, tho with one exception their politics were very far to the right of mine. But covering these meetings made me more aware of economic issues in a sparsely populated rural county—one that built its economy on timber & the railroad until about 20 years ago, & now has very little economy at all.
& it made me aware of a huge issue connected to this—and also connected to this action by Rey. Because however much the pro-timber folks might have welcomed this, I saw it as potentially placing another unfunded mandate on poorer counties. Interestingly, The Post's earlier article mentioned that Montana county governments were against Rey's action, but didn’t explain why. I believe I can shed some light on this.
Roadwork—paving, snowplowing, & maintenance—typically is paid for in large part by property taxes. Schools also receive a lot of their funding from this. However, in many rural Western counties, the biggest landowner is the federal government, & all the federal lands—whether U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management—are exempt from property tax. Adams County, covers 1,370 square miles & has a population of around 3,500 people. The per capita income is around $15,000 per year, so you can see that the majority of folks in these parts aren’t wealthy—as of the 06 census the median value of an Adams County home was $88,000.
All of this is a long way of saying that the amount of property tax provided by the population doesn’t cover the bills for roads & schools. Historically, road and school funding in such counties, particularly in the rural west, was provided by 25% of the timber receipts from public lands. The 25% of timber receipts program was set up by the federal government in 1908, because it recognized that counties with large public lands holdings would be at a disadvantage in terms of property taxes. While the timber industry was active, this program worked effectively, but with the decline in timber harvest over the past 20 years the receipts in many areas haven’t been sufficient to adequately fund programs.
The Craig-Wyden bill (AKA "Secure Rural School and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000") was originally passed by the U.S. Congress in 2000. The bill, sponsored by Idaho Republican Senator Larry Craig (yes, that Larry Craig) and Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, was intended to address shortfalls in road and school funding to counties with large holdings of public lands. The Craig-Wyden Act provided that funding would be set by the average of a State's three highest 25 % payments for the years from 1986 -1999.
Although counties had the option under this program to choose between 25% of current, actual timber receipts or the funding based on historical payments, most chose the latter. In 2006 funding for the Adams County’s road & bridge program would have been about $80,000 per year based on timber receipts, while the Craig-Wyden act provided approximately $400,000. Seventy percent of Craig-Wyden money went to fund county schools, while 30% went to county road programs.
Craig-Wyden wasn’t re-authorized in 2008, however, which leaves rural counties holding the bag—& now we get back to one of the many problems involved in Rey’s action, & one that should have even the pro-timber industry folks in local governments angry & worried.
If timber roads are converted into “real” roads—because make no mistake, the roads we’re talking about don’t resemble a "residential" dirt road like the one Eberle & I live on: ours is a smooth, two-lane route that can be traveled in relative ease. The roads being discussed in this Montana action are timber roads—they’re narrow & rough, & they’re not built for automotive traffic—usually they’re one-lane routes that a timber truck can navigate. So, there would be a lot of logging done to make them into actual roadways that could carry passenger cars & could also accommodate emergency vehicles, etc. & while that logging would bring short-term economy, it would bring habitat destruction, as well as ultimately compromising the access of long-time residents, who aren’t likely to enjoy the luxury sub-divisions that will no doubt rise from the sawdust.
But here’s the further catch: someone’s going to have to maintain those roads, & even if these roads would be private, someone's going have to do more maintenance on the county roads that lead to these roads (due to increased traffic). Who does that? County governments. I know from my days as a reporter on Adams County politics that the increase in property tax from some high-falutin’ second homes wouldn’t make up for the increased costs, especially with Craig-Wyden funding defunct. I also am aware that developers expect concessions from counties—they aren’t necessarily willing to pay for paving & road improvements out-of-pocket, even in the initial phase, & they certainly aren’t willing to pay for ongoing maintenance on county roads that would service their sub-division once everything’s been developed. I do see that Plum Creek Timber had agreed to kick in for affordable housing for residents who would have been affected by increased costs of living—Rey characterized this as a “concession” that’s now “lost” because the road paving scheme fell apart. Is this an important consideration? Yes: McCall, ID, some 50 miles north of us, saw a lot of this until the real estate bust, because that area was really booming. Two of our comrade musicians in the Alice in Wonder Band were forced to leave McCall simply because they couldn’t afford to live there anymore.
In addition, these sorts of luxury sub-divisions tend to cause sprawling, not clustered, development. This isn't just a problem in the rural west—our country from coast to coast has been negatively affected by sprawl. Among the many problems created by sprawl is one simple, bottom line fact: it costs more. Local governments have to fund services covering a wider area.
So these are the costs of development. & now you needn’t wonder why the commissioners in Montana were upset—it’s not because they’re all bleeing heart liberal conservationists like me—it’s because they see the impact on the county's money & are trying to figure out how to mitigate this without adequate funding. It’s also because even conservative county commissioners—at least based on my experience in Adams County—recognize that unfettered development in the West is dismantling a way of life
I’ve long thought that if the rural west would once in awhile vote for a Democrat, then maybe the political parties wouldn’t take the area for granted & some positive things might actually happen. It does seem clear to me that attention gets focused on states whose votes are up for grabs, & since this region is so solidly “red” the national political parties don’t seem to see the need of paying attention to the regional issues (tho on the positive side, Obama opposed this particular action—the big reason Rey tried to push it thru at the 11th hour). Also, let’s face it: this section of the country has natural resources, & those resources thru history have always meant money in some fat cat’s pocket. Still a lot of folks around here see the Republicans as guardians of the life they love—even tho the GOP is perfectly willing to sell them out to monied interests, as evidenced by Rey’s actions.
The pic at the top of the post shows the green gate where North Gray's Creek Road enters the Payette National Forest & becomes a Forest Service road.