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Restrictions on public lands drive the need for federal funding

SHARE Restrictions on public lands drive the need for federal funding
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Charles Emery walks his dog Wyatt on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail before going onto Bureau of Land Management land near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Cottonwood Heights on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

America’s national parks, forests and other federal lands meet the needs of all 330 million citizens in some way. Our public lands supply energy and mineral sources for the 21st century economy, serve as habitat for endangered species, house critical fresh water supplies, and take in tens of millions of recreationers and sportsmen each year. However, our federal public lands system’s greatest impact is undoubtedly on the health and well-being of surrounding gateway communities.

Public lands counties know firsthand the various tradeoffs of having large tracts of federal lands within our jurisdictions. Management and budgetary decisions made by Congress and cabinet agencies have direct consequences for counties in Utah and other western states. When restrictions are placed on mineral development, timber harvests or grazing on public lands, communities and local governments are hardest hit with the economic and social consequences. Southern Utah counties experienced this in the past few decades with national monument proclamations that are currently being scaled back by the Trump administration.

Additionally, restrictive land designations limit the amount of wildfire fuel reduction work that can be conducted. Curbs on mechanical thinning, timber harvests and controlled burns often leave these areas prone to wildfires. The increased severity of wildfires and longer fire seasons have forced all levels of government, including counties, to shift an increasing share of our resources toward mitigation and response efforts. 

Further adding to the budgetary strain of public lands counties, we are unable to tax federal lands. This leaves counties without the significant and steady revenues that might be otherwise be produced, including large amounts of property tax. To help remedy this, Congress passed the Payments In-Lieu of Taxes Act in 1976. PILT payments support mandated services in over 1,900 counties in 49 states, including emergency response, transportation and infrastructure maintenance, law enforcement, education and health care. 

Nearly 78% of Beaver County is PILT-eligible land. This year, the U.S. Department of the Interior paid Beaver County $1,033,257 for the nearly 1.3 million acres of PILT entitlement land within our county. Overall, PILT accounts for approximately 10% of our county’s annual budget, and is used for a litany of services including bridge and road maintenance, fire protection and other emergency services for residents and visitors to federal lands. 

Another federal lands payment program, Secure Rural Schools, was established by Congress in 2000. SRS is administered by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and provides aid to rural counties and school districts affected by the decline in revenue from timber harvests on federal lands. In March 2020, Beaver County received $166,000 from SRS. These funds are used for county roads, education and various forest and watershed conservation projects, including road and trail maintenance and wildfire fuel reduction on federal forestlands. In 2016, the last time the authorization for SRS lapsed, federal revenues to national forest counties decreased by over 80% on average nationwide.

PILT and SRS are important pillars of federal support for county governments and our efforts to provide needed services in our communities, including on federal public lands. Congress not only must fully fund public lands payments in FY 2021, but also show a firm commitment to local governments by finding long-term solutions for these programs to compensate counties in a fair, equitable manner. 

Federal land management agencies have taken on the responsibility of owning large swaths of lands throughout the West. We therefore need a strong and reliable federal partner to provide budgetary certainty and stability for the nation’s counties, especially those counties with restrictions on the use of nearby public lands that limit economic potential. It is imperative for the federal government to support public lands counties through the PILT and SRS programs in fiscal year 2021 and in the long-term.  

Mark Whitney is a Beaver County commissioner. He serves as First Vice President of the Western Interstate Region of the National Association of Counties.