USDA pays out $272 million to rural schools

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, March 18, 2016 - USDA announced Friday over $272 million will be given to rural communities adjacent to national forests to help run schools, repair roads and enhance forest health.

The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (SRS), administered by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), was originally passed in 2000 and was most recently reauthorized for two years in April 2015. Before 2000, many of rural communities supported by this act depended on receiving 25 percent of timber sale revenues from nearby national forests to pay for schools and other critical town infrastructure.

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When logging on national forests became highly controversial in the 1990s and lawsuits brought against USFS became more common, timber sales on national forests fell, directly affecting those communities' ability to fund public services.

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

“The Secure Rural Schools program has allowed USDA to work directly with community leaders to meet rural communities' unique education, transportation, and conservation needs,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a release. “This support is part of the Administration's ongoing commitment help rural communities remain self-sustaining and prosperous.”

USFS Chief Tom Tidwell said he was “extremely pleased that the Forest Service is once again participating in this essential program.”

“As we've seen repeatedly in past years, the Secure Rural Schools program not only provides funding for schools and roads, but also provides funding for conservation projects recommended by the collaborative Resource Advisory Committees,” Tidwell said.

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Portions of the funding will go out to 41 states and Puerto Rico based 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 SRS payments. Last year, SRS provided $285 million to rural communities.

This year, about $27 million of the $272 million will be used to complete conservation projects on federal lands led by local resource advisory committees. In addition, some of the funding will be used to implement “Firewise Communities” plans that help small and rural municipalities fight wildfires, and later do restoration, on national forests.

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