Deadline nears for rural East Texas to get badly-needed federal money

Almost a dozen pine-covered East Texas counties face dramatic cuts to school and road maintenance budgets if Congress fails to soon approve federal funding meant for counties with National Forest Service land.

Portions of proceeds from federal timber sales, given to the forested counties because they can’t tax federal land, used to make up a large portion of county budgets. But as timber revenue fell nationwide, the counties have had to rely on congressionally approved funds to shore up county government budgets.

In 2018, Texas received about $2 million in federal Secure Rural Schools funding to partially pay for schools and road maintenance projects in counties which have untaxable federal forest land, forest service data show. About a dozen forested counties in Texas annually each receive hundreds of thousands from Washington.

Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican who represents much of the affected area, has said that the federal forest service is “killing” rural schools in his district because of a department decision to focus more on forest management than selling federal timber. Gohmert said that the decision forces the local governments to instead accept the congressionally approved funds.

The funding has to be periodically renewed by Congress, and is yet to be approved for fiscal year 2020, which begins Oct. 1. A bill introduced in February by Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo renews the funding nationwide for two more years, and Lindsay Nothern, a Crapo spokesperson, said the senator is optimistic the funding will be approved by the end of the year because the funding usually gets approved “at the last minute.”

“There’s no real great opposition to it that we have seen over the years,” Nothern said. “It’s just one of those things that tends to get included in other catch-all legislation.”

It’s unclear if Gohmert would support renewing the funding. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

If the spending isn’t approved then the counties will have to receive portions of federal timber revenue sold by the local national forest agencies. Throughout much of the 20th century, timber sales out of federal East Texas pine forests have provided millions to nearby counties.

Daryl Melton, the judge of Sabine County—over a third of which is national forest—said that his county would annually receive over $1 million from federal timber sales in the 1980s.

But national timber revenue fell dramatically in the next decades, and now National Forest Service data show that in recent years the county annually receives about $350,000 in Secure Rural School funding. An exception was fiscal year 2016, when Congress did not renew the funding, and Sabine County received $70,000 to split between county road maintenance and school funding.

If the funding isn’t approved for the upcoming year, then the federal money for Sabine County and other forested Texas counties would be “very, very small,” Melton said.

The local schools currently use the money to pay for teachers, computers and other places where state and local funds don’t complete the budget, Melton said. Without the funding, the county would have to raise property taxes.

“The National Forest Service is destroying, is killing schools, it’s killing the counties, it’s killing local government and something has to be done,” said Gohmert at a July House Natural Resources committee hearing.

Gohmert said the National Forest Service is no longer doing the timber contracting work that used to bring in so much money for the nearby counties. He said the forest service should go back to harvesting and selling timber, or the federal government should look to return the forest land back to private owners.

“I realize it will probably take Republicans getting back in the majority but something’s got to be done,” Gohmert said. “We’ve either got to produce those renewable resources that some of us consider a gift of God in East Texas or we’ve got to give the land back, at least a big part of it.”

The national forests in East Texas are currently using stewardship contracting to complete timber and maintenance projects, said Babete Anderson, a spokesperson for the National Forest Service. Under stewardship contracting, the forests produce timber and other products, but money made off those products gets reinvested in the forest, which are in need of maintenance to keep the forests healthy and lower wildfire risk.

“I’ve had a love-hate relationship with it,” said Melton of the stewardship contracting work in Sabine County. “Because it did take away from the county and the schools, but I see where it does benefit the forest too. Their funds have been cut and they haven’t been able to do the prescribed burns and the thinnings.”

Melton said he hopes that some middle ground can be reached between the forest service and the counties. The county needs the money, but he said the local foresters also need the money to keep the local forests healthy and to maintain the facilities in the forest.

“There’s always other factors playing in besides the left and the right not being able to get together,” Melton said.