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Green Economy: A Foreign Export We Need for American Forests

Eric Vaughn


  • Discusses the future uncertainty of funds given to counties with federal land under the Secure Rural Schools and Self-Determination Act.
  • Urges Congress and the President to acknowledge economic value of forests through their ability to sequester carbon, as opposed to only putting value on timber harvest.
Green Economy: A Foreign Export We Need for American Forests
Michael Malorny via Getty Images

Security can be a fleeting thing. Since 2000, counties with federal lands have received funds under the Secure Rural Schools and Self-Determination Act, or simply Secure Rural Schools (SRS). See 16 U.S.C. § 7101 et seq. This funding was based on historical harvest of timber on federal lands within the respective counties. Id. While the funds provide an important source of income for those counties, the ability of those counties to rely on the funds for continuing income is uncertain. 

In a press release last year, Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley announced that Oregon counties would receive over $82 million in payments. “For the better part of two decades, SRS payments have maintained an economic lifeline for Oregonians counting on quality schools, dependable infrastructure, forest maintenance, and more,” Wyden said. “I am gratified to see these dollars go to help Oregon communities tackle the ongoing threat of wildlife and support crucial community services like education, public safety, and environmental conservation.” Id. Certainly, these are all worthy values, and it is encouraging to see them receiving necessary funding. However, the future of that funding is less certain, and it is putting strain on the communities that rely on it year to year. Douglas Freeman, Douglas County Commissioner and president of the Association of O&C Counties, said, “The sharp reduction in timber harvests from federal lands has significantly decreased the amount of receipt sharing payments at a time when county services are needed more than ever.”

The strain is not limited to Oregon schools either. Hailey Branson-Potts, writing for the Los Angeles Times, tells the story of Anmarie Swanstrom, the superintendent of the Mountain Valley Unified School District, in impoverished Hayfork, California. She traveled to Washington, D.C., to make her case to legislators, because—like Oregon schools—rural schools in California are in danger of losing “a significant chunk of [their budgets] if Congress does not renew the SRS. Id. Renewal may come, but without a long-term solution, members of the Hayfork community are at risk of losing mental health support, and even evacuation centers where they shelter against fires, both of which are provided by schools. Id. As Swanstrom put it, “We serve as the heart of the town, and if the schools go, the town will go completely.” Id.

In the meandering history of the SRS, Congress first enacted the measure for six years, then repeatedly extended it, usually by only one or two years. Branson-Potts notes that during its nine extensions the SRS was at one point “tucked into a bill to shore up the nation’s helium supply,” and on another occasion “funded in part by a tax on roll-your-own cigarettes.” Branson-Potts, supra. In light of a federal budget measured in trillions, Branson-Potts says lawmakers generally consider the SRS program—which contributed $238 million dollars last year— “budget dust.” Id. She writes that calls for permanent funding abound, but are held back by partisan politics, with liberals not wanting to cut down trees, and conservatives wanting to cut spending. Id. The latest extension of the Secure Rural Schools program is set to expire on October 1, 2023, an imposing deadline. 16 U.S.C. § 7111.

The history of the SRS shows a long-standing struggle for schools in forested counties. While providing funding in the short term, and being repeatedly extended as expiration approached, the long-term security—and therefore stability—of these communities requires a long-term solution, which may come from of a graft from another statute related to environmental conservation.

The Tropical Forest Conservation Act of 1988 (TFCA) amended the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, codified at 22 U.S.C. 2151 et seq. In the TFCA, Congress observed that it was the established policy of the United States to “support and seek protection of tropical forests around the world”, owing the many benefits to humanity. 22 U.S.C. § 2431(a)(2). Among those benefits was the ability of tropical forests to “play a critical role as carbon sinks in reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, thus moderating potential climate change,” as well as “regulating hydrological cycles on which far-flung agricultural and coastal resources depend”. Id. at § 2431(a)(2)(B)-(C). Of particular interest, Congress noted that “[d]eveloping countries with urgent needs for investment and capital for development have allocated a significant amount of their forests to logging concessions”. Id. at § 2431(a)(4). Congress concluded that “[f]inding economic benefits to local communities from sustainable uses of tropical forest is critical to the protection of tropical forests.”

Accordingly, since 2007 the United States has contributed funds to Costa Rica in exchange for the benefits its tropical forests provide. Most recently, Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado secured another $135 million from the LEAF Coalition, of which the United States is a member. This was made possible in part by Costa Rica’s success following earlier funding. Id. Between 1987 and 2013, Costa Rica became the first—and only—country in Latin America to reverse deforestation. Id. Over that same period, Costa Rican tropical forests captured 107 million tons of carbon dioxide. Id.

Even forests that are not tropical provide such benefits, as noted by President Biden in Executive Order 14072. In his order, Biden described the forests of the United States as “cherished expanses of mature and old-growth forests”, which are “critical to the health, prosperity, and resilience of our communities.” Id. at § 1. He noted their ability to combat global climate crises—capturing around 30 percent of all emitted carbon dioxide—to sustain diverse populations of plants and animals, as well as their importance to the Tribal Nations, which have called the lands home since time immemorial. Id. The forests of North America can provide U.S. citizens with the same kinds of benefits as those of tropical countries, and of course to the planet as a whole. To that end, Biden ordered a report on “key opportunities for greater development of nature-based solutions across the Federal Government, including through potential policy, guidance, and program changes.” Id. at § 4(a).

A source of friction for such a policy comes from “multiple use and sustained yield” under the National Forest Management Act (NFMA), mandating these be provided in accordance with the Multiple-Use and Sustained Yield Act of 1960 (MUSY”). 16 U.S.C. § 1604(e)(1). MUSY defines “multiple-use” in extremely broad terms, but defines “sustained yield” more narrowly as the “achievement and maintenance in perpetuity of a high-level . . . output of the various renewable resources of the national forests without impairment of the land.” 16 U.S.C. § 531(a)-(b) (emphasis added). A more concise summary of “multiple use” can be extracted from the two statutory provisions to include managing the forest for “outdoor recreation, range, watershed, wildlife and fish, and wilderness” consistent with “the needs of the American people.” 16 U.S.C. §§ 1604(e)(2), 531(a). Perhaps Congress was not specifically thinking of carbon sequestration as a need of the American people at the time: it may be somewhat unlikely for 1960. Nonetheless, the statute itself was crafted to acknowledge the need to address changing circumstances and information, mandating the “most judicious use of the land for some or all of these resources or related services over areas large enough to provide sufficient latitude for periodic adjustments in use to conform to changing needs and conditions.” Id. at § 531(a). Additionally, while some remain in denial about climate change, accepting it is part-and-parcel with accepting that it impairs the land, which speaks to § 531(b).

If Congress and the president are still willing to acknowledge and act upon the economic value of forests through their ability to sequester carbon, as opposed to only putting value on timber harvest, everyone could win. One the one hand, fiscal conservatives won’t reduce spending, but they will have a well-grounded, ongoing justification for the expenditure. In practical terms, the rural communities that receive SRS funds also have significant numbers of conservative constituents. On the other, those concerned with environmental conservation gain an additional tool for protecting forests. Last of all, but most vital, communities in need receive both reliable funding for schools and security from wildfires, while the forests and their many benefits are also protected. Neither is dependent upon the timber harvest when the economic incentive is tied to a perpetual benefit provided by a healthy forest.