Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Firefighting bills hit some rural counties, who say programs to compensate them for national forests are inadequate

Cathedral Peaks,Yosemite National Park, Tuolumne County (Photo by Charlie Pankey)
As wildfires ravage the western U.S., officials in some rural counties with lots of federal land say that fighting those fires has stretched their resources too thin, and that programs meant to compensate them for having so much land off their tax rolls aren't helping enough.

That's the case in Tuolumne County, California: 77 percent of it is federal land, part of Yosemite National Park,. That blocks development, limits tax revenue and means less money for the county's firefighters and, because of the forests, a greater risk of fires, Randy Hanvelt writes for Route Fifty. Hanvelt serves on the county Board of Supervisors, and traveled to Washington, D.C., last week with several dozen other county officials to discuss the problem.

Congress attempted to compensate for this loss of potential revenue with the 1976 Payments in Lieu of Taxes Act, which provides funds to counties with federal land. Tuolumne received just over $2.7 million this year in PILOT funds, but Hanvelt writes that the county has been struggling financially because of the wildfires. "This summer, Tuolumne County sent our own county fire units to assist with structure protection during this summer’s Donnell Fire when it was clear that the U.S. Forest Service did not have the resources," Hanvelt writes. "The demands on our law-enforcement resources were significantly increased as well."

PILOT funds are critical to ensuring that counties can pitch in to fight fires, Hanvelt writes, but the program hasn't been funded sufficiently. He wants "mandatory, long-term funding" to insulate it from "the annual congressional appropriations process," and likewise for the Secure Rural Schools program, which Congress reauthorized this year for another two years. The SRS program compensates counties containing national forests for limits on timber harvests.

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