Coastal Voices: Basic services at risk

By David Finigan August 23, 2011 06:29 pm

Del Norte County will lose critical federal funding to keep our schools open and roads paved unless the federal government reauthorizes its decades-long commitment to communities with federal forest land.

The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act may be little known, but it is a key fixture in our county’s ability to provide the most basic services to those that work and live in our area. You can get involved now by contacting Congress and urging it to support this vital program for America’s rural communities. 

When the federal government created the national forest systems in the early 20th century, millions of acres of forested land were brought into federal ownership.  While there were conservation benefits to this historic act, communities like our own must grapple with more limited economic development opportunities. We can’t build houses or businesses in the national forest.

Recognizing its obligation to rural communities, the federal government created a revenue-sharing plan to offset the loss of economic activity in forested areas.  The funds are used for the benefit of public schools and the upkeep of public roads.

However, the dramatic decline in timber harvesting and other forest activities in the late-1990s dramatically reduced this funding and caused Congress to step in and pass legislation to continue fulfilling the federal commitment by passing the Secure Rural Schools Act. 

This longstanding federal-local partnership has helped provide vital funding for schools, roads, search and rescue, and other county needs — roughly $2,757,303 for Del Norte County.  Our county contains nearly 500,000 acres of federal forests, and we are struggling to maintain basic services, especially in light of our 14.5 percent unemployment rate. Our community cannot afford to let the Secure Rural Schools Act expire.  

Unless Congress takes action, the Secure Rural Schools Act will expire in September. The loss of this funding will have an immediate impact on our community.  Some schools will lose important education programs and beloved teachers, while others may even be forced to close.

The cut would also mean that roads will go unpaved, and potholes will not be patched this winter. Reduced road repairs could impact the public safety of our residents and out-of-area visitors alike.  

California’s forest counties are on the brink of losing nearly $70 million every year. Del Norte County stands to lose more than $2.5 million in funds designated for local schools and road maintenance.

The vast majority of these funds provided through the Secure Rural Schools Act are used to directly fund jobs in road maintenance and public works and positions within the public school system.

These are essential services for the citizens of this county and constitute family-wage jobs.  Jeff Daniels, county roads superintendent for Del Norte County, has indicated that without the reauthorization of SRSCA, that 50 percent of the employees in the County Road department may be subject layoffs. Del Norte County cannot afford any further hits to our local job market.

We need your help to save this program. The Del Norte County Board of Supervisors has been working tirelessly with our congressional delegation for many months to find a way to continue this important funding. We need you to join the fight and Congress needs to hear from you now.

Please call U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson and senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer at (202) 224-3121 and tell them to reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act before it’s too late.

You can also join the national campaign to save the act by going to partnershipforruralamerica.org and follow the campaign on Facebook and Twitter.

During these tough economic times, Congress should not leave America’s rural communities behind.

David Finigan represents District 5 on the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the National Forest Counties & Schools Coalition. He can be reached at (707) 954-0232.