The kids get on the bus every morning at 6:05. That’s because their bus ride in the tiny Alton school district in Oregon County, Missouri is an hour and a half long. It’s no secret that Congress is dysfunctional, but sometimes it's hard to put faces to that failure.
The long and arduous bus routes and the hardship suffered by 6 year-olds riding a bus from early in the morning to late in the evening are a direct result of Congress’s failure to do its job. The face of this issue is a young girl about 50 inches tall with a gap tooth grin and a Hulk backpack, sound asleep on a hard, cold, and vomit green bus seat.
We’re all disappointed when Congress fails to act on the promises they’ve made to voters. But many issues facing our nation are hard, with no easy answers or readily available solutions. The Secure Rural Schools Act, which expired in 2015, is not a hard issue. The Act provides funding for rural school districts that host National Forests, replacing a small portion of the revenue lost to local school districts because of changes in the management of federal lands. Reauthorizing the Secure Rural Schools Act isn’t controversial, and it’s inexplicable that Congress hasn’t moved to protect rural schools.
Oregon County, Missouri is a beautiful place, with miles and miles of the best that the Missouri landscape has to offer. Back in the 1930’s, the federal government realized as much and created the Mark Twain National Forest. For decades, the forest was managed with timber harvests as a part of the expected and actual use. Timber harvests have dwindled as environmental uses became more highly valued than the management of forest resources for multiple uses. This has resulted in oak decline as the forests aged and fell victim to insects and disease. Revenues to local entities have declined as well; a law passed early in the 20th century mandates that a portion of those timber revenues goes to the local schools and county government.
In 2000, Congress responded to the declining timber sales revenue with the passing of the Secure Rural Schools Act, increasing the local share in the formula dividing revenues between the federal government and local counties and school districts. The law was reauthorized in 2006 and several times since, before lapsing again in 2015.
In Missouri, failure to renew the law resulted in statewide revenues dropping by over two-thirds in fiscal year 2016. Over 700 rural counties across the nation have seen their funding cut. For the Alton School District, funding has dropped from a high of $414,440 in 2010 to just $133,267 this year. There are fewer teachers in the district and bus routes have been consolidated, consigning some students to a commute nearly as long as the time they spend in class.
It’s important that we preserve natural resources, saving wild places for our enjoyment and for the benefit of generations to come. That’s the right thing to do. But all too often we fail to take into account the costs borne by the communities hosting federally owned land.
Over a hundred thousand acres of the Alton School District are owned by the federal government, nearly one third of the total land area in the sprawling but sparsely populated school district. Locals see very little revenue from tourists and are quick to tell you that the cost of policing the federal lands far outweighs any economic benefit to the local area from the forest. There is a continuing economic cost from the refusal to harvest timber, as loggers look for other careers and places to live and school districts struggle in a time of tight state budgets.
It is impossible to communicate the frustration that local residents feel. National monuments, parks and forests are seen as an undiluted good, one that couldn’t possibly be opposed by anybody but the most rapacious logging company or oil driller. It’s a good bet that no voter in Kansas City or New York City has ever imagined that federal lands are anything but a blessing.
This disconnect between those who love wilderness from a distance and the people who live near public lands is a real problem for our country. It should be possible to live near one of our nation's most beautiful places without sacrificing the future of your kids. Wild places are more likely to be protected if the people who live near them see them as a boon rather than a burden.
Congress has a responsibility to that 6 year-old on the bus, and it’s time they acted.
About the author: Blake Hurst is a third-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farm Bureau board of directors.