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US Forest Service taking back federal funds from states over budget cuts

Aug 20, 2013: A fire attack helicopter drops water along a draw northeast of Hilltop Cafe on Idaho 21 as a bulldozer plows a fire line on the ridge northeast of Boise.AP

The U.S. Forest Service plans to take a portion of the timber payments it has promised or paid out to 22 states, citing federal budget cuts.

Collection letters from Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell went out to governors around the country Monday, saying money would be taken from funds used for habitat improvement and other national forest-related projects that put people to work under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act.

Oregon stands to lose the most in the move, with nearly $4 million in reductions. That would leave the state with about $3.4 million under that program.

California would lose nearly $2.2 million, leaving it with about $1 million for the program. Idaho is set to lose $1.7 million, Montana nearly $1.3 million and Alaska, about $930,000 -- nearly half the total allotment it had been expecting.

Earlier this year, Tidwell sent letters to 41 states, asking for the return of $17.9 million in timber payments used to pay for schools, roads, search and rescue operations in rural counties and conservation projects.

"We regret having to take this action, but we have no alternative under sequestration," Tidwell said in his letter to Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, dated March 19.

Alaska was given the option of having about $826,000 the state had received or expected under the act reduced from its so-called "Title II funds," for habitat improvement and other projects, or getting a bill for the money that had already been paid out under other sections of the act. Parnell refused, saying there was no basis in law for the request.

It wasn't immediately clear why the agency was taking a greater share of funds from Alaska now.

Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said by email that the state will be exploring all options to address the agency's actions, "as an individual state and in concert with other states."

The Western Governors' Association, in a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in May, said the budget act that triggered the automatic federal budget cuts, known as sequestration, does not include language authorizing "retroactive application of the spending reductions or limitations. Nor does it contain language requiring reimbursement of funds that were already distributed in order to satisfy spending limitations."

The Forest Service falls under the Department of Agriculture.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the Forest Service was diverting $600 million from other areas to put toward wildland firefighting efforts.

Agency spokesman Larry Chambers said the Forest Service had been dealing with the issue of collections under the Secure Rural Schools act since March, "well before any decision was made regarding transfer of fire funds."

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