August 29, 2013

Wyden: USDA Must Provide Fairness For Rural Counties

Agency Should Not Take Money From Cash-Strapped Counties Without Good Reason

Washington, D.C. – Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., demanded an immediate explanation for new, higher sequestration bills sent to states that received funding through the Secure Rural Schools program.

That program provides a lifeline – funding schools, roads and emergency services in more than 700 rural counties that saw timber harvests plummet as a result of federal land management and environmental rules. 

“I am astounded by the lack of Agency clarity, the apparently arbitrary decision to disproportionately target Oregon’s SRS funds, and the aggressive agency approach that has characterized this ordeal,” Wyden said in the letter. “I can only conclude that USDA and the Forest Service are continuing their campaign against cash-strapped rural counties.”

The U.S. Forest Service response to mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration has been marked by confusion, misdirection and a lack of transparency. At the start of this year, the agency paid out the full amount of Secure Rural Schools funds to states and counties. Then, the agency reversed itself, and notified states in March that it would require states to return a portion of the critical funds amid threats of fines and interest.

Finally, last week, the agency decided to take back even more money from states, without explanation. As an example, the agency is now seeking to get back nearly $4 million from Oregon – an increase of $400,000 over the March bill. Alaska’s bill increased by about $100,000, to more than $900,000, and the agency requested higher reimbursements from several other states as well.

Even more baffling, the agency decided to take a disproportionate amount of money away from states that had money remaining in SRS accounts, meaning Oregon communities that hang on the edge of bankruptcy were once again slammed by arbitrary decisions by government bureaucrats.

Because many states declined to repay the sequestered funds, the agency took money out of accounts that were supposed to fund job-creating restoration and maintenance projects in those states, known as Resource Advisory Council funds.

The letter from Senator Wyden to USDA is attached.