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As if being an environmental lobbyist — constantly pitted against the wealthiest companies in America — weren’t tough enough. But when their opponents in business are joined by Democratic stalwarts like the National Education Association and labor unions, the enviros are really swimming upstream. And that’s the case in the fight over a bill dealing with the use of timber revenue to fund rural schools. The Secure Rural Schools and Self Development Act is sponsored in the Senate by Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and in the House by Nathan Deal, R-Ga. and Allen Boyd, D-Fla. “Before anything else, this is a rural education bill. The beneficiaries are the 4.2 million students in rural forest county schools,” says Bob Douglas, superintendent of schools for Tehama County in Northern California. He is president of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition, the main proponent of the legislation. Not so, say seven national environmental organizations trying to stop the bill. “The timber industry’s agenda is tacked onto a bill that everyone would want to support,” says Michael Francis, director of national forest programs for the Wilderness Society. Under current law, counties receive 25 percent of gross receipts generated from timber sales and other revenue generating activities in the national forests in those counties. The revenue is divided between county schools and road programs. The federal government first decided to compensate communities adjacent to national forests in 1908, believing that the payments would help make up for the lost tax revenue that would be paid if the land were privately owned. But while the 25 percent rate has been steady since 1911, the decline in revenue has been stark. The reduction in timber sales receipts — a result of environmental restrictions, demand for raw materials, and a decreasing supply of trees — has severely strained these rural counties. According to the National Association of Counties, or NaCo, annual timber sales from the National Forests topped 13 billion board feet in the early 1990s. Today sales are less than 3 billion board feet. The Wilderness Society contends that revenue from timber sales from the national forests dropped from $361 million in 1989 to $228 million in 1998. “A lot of our counties have seen a 90 percent drop in these timber revenues in the last 10 years,” says NaCo’s Eric Ciliberti, who manages the association’s Rural Action Caucus. TIMBER FALLING The bills in question compensate for the fluctuations in timber cash by having the general treasury supplement the funds from timber sales. While the enviros would rather that education funding be completely separate from the fortunes of big timber, they accept the first part of the bill. The controversial piece of the legislation instructs counties to use a portion of the money to set up locally approved projects in their national forests. Those projects could include road construction and timber sales. “The environmental community recognizes that counties next to national forests are due payment from the federal government because of the lost tax base,” says Martin Hayden of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. “But we don’t think that just because they are adjacent to the national forests that they have the right to manage that forest. Are these county forests or are they national forests?” Between 700 and 800 counties contain national forests. The National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition estimates that 4.2 million school children are educated in the nearly 2,000 school districts within those counties. The decline in receipts has forced schools in rural counties to limit classroom days, reduce teachers, cut extracurricular activities, and even close schools, claim supporters of the legislation. “NEA looks at this bill not as a forest management plan, but as an education funding plan,” National Education Association lobbyist Randy Moody says. “If you want to change forest management, do it in another bill. This bill is to supply a steady source of funding for rural schools. Half of our members say they teach in rural or small-town schools.” The environmentalists say school children are being used as a smoke screen. “This is just a blatant attempt by timber companies to use school kids as a wedge to gain back what they have lost in public opinion,” says The Wilderness Society’s Francis. “The American public no longer supports the rape and plunder of national forests.” National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition was formed 3 1/2 years ago to ask Congress to examine declining federal forest receipts. The coalition now includes more than 1,000 local, regional, and national organizations. Washington, D.C.-based members include educational groups such as the National Education Association and American Association of School Administrators; business organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Independent Forest Products Association; and labor unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Service Employees International Union, and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. Douglas, the group’s president, says members of the coalition have been working with the sponsors of the House and Senate bills since the drafting process. “The two bills are really a reflection of our principles,” he says. LESSON PLAN The coalition has focused on the grass roots, as teams of members have traveled to Capitol Hill, and all members have been encouraged to contact their local members of Congress. While important, the money for schools and roads is not the only concern for community leaders in those locales. The local projects are crucial because they give area residents some say in how the forest is managed. “If we agree to sever any connection with receipts from timber, then we would have no connection to the federal government in how those lands are managed in the future,” Douglas says. “This is not just about roads and schools. We are also talking about the plight of rural families and their economic connection to the forest. We need the national forest system to create jobs.” The various factions in support of the bill have been working together on Capitol Hill. The NEA’s Moody says he and Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Ron Eidshaug have had joint meetings with lawmakers. Through its Rural Action Caucus, NaCo has been mobilizing officials from national forest counties, educating them on the issue, and encouraging them to get in touch with their members of Congress. The enviros have also been calling out the grass roots. They say they have brought dozens of teachers — and even some county commissioners — to Washington to let their lawmakers know that this bill endangers their national forests. They tout a poll of 1,000 public school teachers, done for the California Wilderness Coalition and the teachers association in Davis, Calif. The poll shows that 87 percent of teachers prefer a policy that “provide[s] guaranteed funding for rural counties for schools and roads that is not connected with logging activity in any way.” The timber industry has been conspicuously absent from this debate. “We are 100 percent supportive of the coalition’s efforts, and we’re financially supportive of the coalition,” says Michael Klein of the American Forest and Paper Association. “It is obvious that there are many sectors of the industry which live and work in rural communities and depend upon rural communities, so we are supportive of them, but probably the lawmakers are more responsive to their actual constituents. So we have taken a back seat, or more of a behind-the-scenes role.”

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