The average citizen considers a county commissioner in Montana as someone who decides which friend gets his road paved this month. If only the job were that simple.
These days, the typical county commissioner, particularly one who presides over a forested county, has a host of complex federal laws and worldwide trends to consider before making a decision.
Consider the case of Ravalli County’s Board of Commissioners, which is currently hedging its bets in a high-stakes gamble in which the feds, mother nature and the global economy set the rules.
Since 1908, Montana counties and the federal government have agreed that counties would receive 25 percent of its receipts from timber sales on federal land. In Montana counties, it’s known simply as “the 25 percent fund.” In Ravalli County, two-thirds of that kickback has gone to improve schools, the remaining third for roads.
That was a formula that worked, especially in the 1970s and ’80s, when timber harvest was at a peak. But in the ’90s, timber harvest slowed. And so did the timber receipts to counties.
Ravalli County Commission Chairman Alan Thompson says the receipts to his county have declined from $160,000 three years ago, to $98,000 the following year to $89,000 last year. And with timber harvest still on the decline, Thompson can read the writing on the wall.
Ravalli County isn’t the only forested county in the U.S. to see a decline in its timber revenues. That’s why Congress last year passed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, also known by the people who have to administer it as “the new 25 percent fund.”
Stripped to its essentials, what the legislation does is allow counties to either take a gamble and stick with the existing 25 percent formula for two years, hoping timber harvest and revenues increase, or take the safer bet and commit for six years to a stabilized fund that doesn’t rely on timber harvest.
Had it not been for the fires of 2000, and had it not been for the Canadian timber exports to the U.S., deciding on a funding formula would have been a “no-brainer,” says Thompson. But now it’s not that easy.
A stabilized fund would bring in more than $300,000 every year for six years to Ravalli County, which is a pretty hefty sum for a county as fiscally lean as Ravalli. But Thompson also has his eye on the more than 100 million board feet of timber the Bitterroot National Forest (BNF) proposes to log as a result of the fires from last summer. The BNF says salvage timber might even go as high as 180 million board feet. That could mean between $3 and $3.7 million to Ravalli County’s coffers, a sum that initially had Thompson drooling.
“But after further study, that doesn’t appear to be what’s happening,” he says. The board must weigh in other factors before committing Ravalli County to a financial path that can’t be quickly changed. There will no doubt be appeals to any salvage logging the BNF ultimately proposes, for instance. Then there are market conditions, foreign timber imports and the quality of the wood to be harvested—“an absolute multitude of things. And that’s one reason why we’re not making a decision now, because we don’t want to make a decision we’ll regret in 30 days.”
The feds have given the county until Sept. 30 to decide which funding formula to accept.
In the meanwhile, the county is hedging its bets. Thompson thinks the board will eventually choose the stabilized fund, rather than commit to the whims of nature and economics beyond Montana’s borders. If that is indeed what the county chooses, then it must first put another federal plan into effect: It must establish Resource Advisory Councils, or RACs.
In order to collect the stabilized timber funds every year, the federal government has come up with a system of RACs, which give counties a greater degree of local control over forest issues.
Each RAC consists of five citizens representing interests one of three categories: industry, environmentalism and government. The RACs would come up with forest management projects like watershed restoration, road maintenance and weed treatment. “It is kind of wide open,” says Dan Castillo, an agency forester who directs the RAC project.
All projects proposed by the RAC would be designed in conjunction with the Forest Service and would be subject to the usual environmental reviews, says Castillo. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture would decide whether a project is a go.
May 4 was the deadline for RAC applications. As of last Monday, 47 Bitterrooters had submitted their names. County commissioners and Forest Service personnel will weed out the applicants and submit a list of 33 names to the Secretary of Agriculture for the six-year appointment.
That’s if the RACs ever do, in fact, go to work. Thompson says he and his colleagues on the board will decide Aug. 1 which funding formula to choose—the existing fund, which would not require a RAC, or the more stable six-year fund, which would.
Though the law creating the new stable fund is so complex that it makes Thompson laugh just talking about it, it is, he says, a good law that will go a long way toward helping Ravalli County make up for the lost timber revenues.
“Quite frankly, this is extremely complicated,” he says. “It’s like the weather, it changes daily.”