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Forest Service dominates RAC dollars

The biggest landowner in Sanders County pays no taxes. This situation has existed since the U.S. Forest Service became the land stewards of timbered mountains, and wasn’t too much of a loss to county revenues during the heyday of timber harvest. The taxes paid through logging subsidized county roads and schools until the profitable timber was harvested. The screams must have been heard as far as Washington D.C. In 2000 the Congress created a vehicle to funnel Payment in Lieu of Taxes to timber dependent counties. Called the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, some of the money could be shuttled to community-driven projects, if the county commissioners appointed a committee (to be called Resource Advisory Committee) to choose projects.

Still with me? Everything is in place for multiple requirements: money and government. One requirement called for a diverse membership on the committee, thus I received a call from one of our commissioners: “Lou, you’re a member of Sierra Club, aren’t you?”

“No way, I don’t agree with their stand on logging.” He questioned me further, sounding more and more desperate with each ‘no’ answer. Did I belong to any regional environmental groups? Any state groups? He told me they were having a hard time finding an ‘environmentalist’ in Sanders County to serve on the RAC. I confessed to membership in our local conservation group, Cabinet Resource Group, but he didn’t think it was credential enough to pass the Department of Agriculture requirement.

They couldn’t find any Sierra Club members, so eventually settled on me, and in 2002, wearing–I swear to God—a name tag identifying me as Environmentalist I attended my first RAC session. Many of the other members were acquaintances from my past Forest Service employment, and both District Rangers also sat in the meetings as non-voting members. And being government there are an incredible amount of strings attached. The tightest noose is that the projects have to be on National Forest Land or directly affect National Forest Land.

Our committee worked on high sounding ideals for a vision statement including promoting local employment and educating local children. I wrote seven or eight newspaper articles encouraging people to submit projects. We contacted local service and church groups for proposals. There was nearly nada response; in the six years of funding, only two projects have been suggested by regular people. Both were readily funded.

The Forest Service cannot be faulted for filling the vacuum. The money—sometimes as much as $250,000—is available. The Forest Service has dozens of wish list projects; some are worthy, some are just downright silly, and some would have problematic consequences. Over half of the RAC money has gone to fix man-made problems on National Forest lands. Hundreds of miles of roads must be maintained or closed and re-sloped. Culverts must be replaced, landslides re-vegetated, and introduced weeds, killed.

A couple years ago, while stopping for gasoline to drive to Thompson Falls for a RAC meeting, the gal running the cash register engaged me in conversation. “My daughter worked with you in 1978. You were her Y.C.C.  crew leader. Best job she’s ever had. She really learned how to work that summer.”

One of those great cosmic intersections occurred at the meeting that evening, when the Cabinet District presented their proposal to operate a Youth Conservation Corp employing eight local teenagers in resource management. It received unanimous approval, as has each successive YCC request. Both Lolo and Cabinet Ranger Districts now run an eight week YCC program at a cost of $30,000 per season funded by RAC. Finally, a project that fulfills the mission statement: employ locals, educate kids.

The big grant this year, $70,000, went towards railroad crossing bars to be placed at the crossing on the road to Finlay Flats recreation area. Both AVISTA, the water power agency, and the Forest Service wanted this. Even though the crossing isn’t on USFS land and doesn’t effect water quality, agency folks argued that it was an important safety issue. If so, several RAC members observed, either Burlington Northern or Department of Transportation should pay for the whole thing. RAC’s share of the railroad crossing bars could fund two more YCC crews. But, when you are the token environmentalist in Sanders County, you don’t have a lot of clout. If I had clout, I would suggest to quit monkeying around with Payment in Lieu of Taxes and have the federal government just pay taxes like any other landowner.

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Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

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