USDA announces $285 million in support for rural schools payments

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, April 27, 2015 - USDA announced today that it would provide $285 million, authorized by the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, to support local schools and roads in 41 states and Puerto Rico.

“This support is part of the administration's ongoing commitment to rural communities,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack following his agency's announcement. “The Forest Service's century-long support of America's public schools and roads is one of many ways in which USDA helps rural communities remain self-sustaining and prosperous.”

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The Secure Rural Schools Act, originally passed in 2000 and most recently reauthorized for two years in mid-April, funds local projects to help maintain and improve public schools, public roads and forest health in rural communities near national forests. Before 2000, many of these rural communities depended on receiving 25 percent of the revenues from timber sales on federal land. When logging on national forests became highly controversial in the 1990s and lawsuits brought against the Forest Service became more common, timber sales fell, directly affecting those communities' ability to fund public services.

The Act replaced revenue sharing with guaranteed levels of payments - not tied to timber sales - creating more consistent support on which rural areas could rely.

The U.S. Forest Service, an agency housed under USDA, is responsible for allocating the Secure Rural Schools funds. In addition to funding for schools and roads, counties may also receive support for projects such as Firewise Communities programs, reimbursements for emergency services on national forests and support for the development of community wildfire protection plans.

“I'm grateful for the Congressional action to reauthorize this Act and understand how important these funds have become to the communities that receive them,” said Tom Tidwell, the chief of the Forest Service, in a press release. “We've been anticipating its passage and we are positioned to make the payments as rapidly as possible.”

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A portion of the announced funding - $28 million - will go to Title II special conservation projects within national forests. The projects selected for support were reviewed and recommended by resource advisory communities comprised of local stakeholders.

According to USDA, new language in the reauthorization will lock-in the allocation elections made by counties for Fiscal Year 2013 for the following two fiscal years. The deadline to initiate a Title II or Title III project - that is, a county project - has been extended to Sept. 30, 2017 and the deadline to obligate Title II or Title III funds has been extended to Sept. 30, 2018.

The funding allocated to each state depends on several factors, including the number of acres considered national forest within an eligible county and how many counties within a state elected to share in Secure Rural Schools payments.

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