Congress is currently in the midst of trying to negotiate a final surface transportation authorization bill. While this is important legislation for a number of reasons, it also could contain a one-year extension of two pieces of legislation that are critical to Del Norte County and other local governments across the country: the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act and the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program, both of which have expired.
The federal government uses these and other programs to compensate local governments for the loss of tax revenue that would otherwise be received if the land remained in private ownership. Local government revenues are primarily derived from property tax collections. With limited property to tax, our ability to function and survive is significantly hindered. In Del Norte County, more than 470,670 acres is owned by the federal government - nearly 73 percent of our entire community! And, that figure does not include land owned by the state or tribal governments, which further limits tax receipts.
Even if these programs are reauthorized by Congress, they remain a
band-aid on a much bigger wound. The duration of each program will be
too short, and the dollars too limited. Instead of addressing real
problems, they merely mask the challenges we face.
While this is going on, the Forest Service and Congress are providing
federal funding - our tax dollars - to purchase private land in Del
Norte owned by ALCO Holdings known as the Hurdygurdy Creek property. The
federal government claims that this purchase makes sense because the
property is essentially an "inholding," that it's surrounded by other
What's not discussed is how the land is essentially worthless on the
open market; its only value is to the federal government. Instead of
offering a low, reasonable sum for the property, the federal government
will almost certainly vastly overpay. Not only will Del Norte lose tax
revenue from the sale, but your tax dollars will be used to overpay for
The Forest Service can't manage what it has, yet it wants to buy
more. Consider the Goose Creek acquisition, which occurred four years
ago. We were promised public access to the acquired property. Since
then, a Forest Service access road to the property acquired by Del Norte
County as part of the acquisition has been washed out and the Forest
Service has yet to restore it. With the Forest Service unable to manage
its forests, it's only a matter of time before we have another
catastrophic fire that ravages our air quality, damages our watersheds,
and ruins recreational opportunities for all.
The Forest Service is also implementing its Travel Management Plan
for the Smith River National Recreation Area and other forests across
the country. In our area, this is code for a significant reduction in
the ability of the public to access and enjoy our own forests. So, while
more land is being bought and less funding is being provided to offset
those purchases, our access to those lands continues to be further
Congress needs to initiate a holistic discussion regarding rural
America. Instead of just giving us money for what the federal government
has taken (which is always too little and too late), let us discuss
where our economies are going and then try to determine what we can do
to turn them around.
The promise of tourism sustaining us on its own is a fantasy. But on
the flip-side, I don't believe timber harvesting alone is the cure-all
either. A reasonable approach to the management of our forests combined
with tourism and other industries could be sustainable, reasonable, and
The federal government has a responsibility to backfill lost taxes
for the land it has obtained and stand behind the decisions made many
years ago that assured local government sustainability after the
acquisition of property had taken place.
The nature of local government is based on the ability to provide
services to people residing or visiting their counties, including people
utilizing federal and state lands. The funding for these services,
services mandated and expected, is intrinsically tied to property tax.
The federal government must be true to its agreements and continue to
provide adequate funding to local government to offset the acquisitions
of the past, present and future.
SRS and PILT are not handouts. These funds have been dedicated for
many years to fulfill the federal government's responsibility. These
funds are clearly compensation for revenue lost due to the actions of
the federal government.
Gerry Hemmingsen is a Del Norte County supervisor.