JEFF BARNARD and KEVIN FREKING
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Key federal lawmakers say they're confident that Congress will renew a program this year that has become a lifeline for rural communities suffering from a decline in timber harvests on federal lands, but they can't say when or how.
The uncertainty over the Secure Rural Schools program is making some local officials nervous. They would have a hard time making up the financial loss and many would have to resort to layoffs. The program compensates counties for a decline in federal timber payments resulting from environmental protections for the spotted owl, salmon and other species.
The program has distributed more than $3 billion to rural counties since it became law in 2000. It expired this year and the last checks have been going out to counties.
The widespread impact -- money goes to more than 700 counties in 41 states -- could be the program's salvation in tough budget times.
Leaders from both parties told The Associated Press this week that renewal of the program is a priority. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, said he is working on a proposal that would provide counties with a comparable level of federal funding in coming years. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the lead Republican on the panel, also counts himself as a supporter because it helps communities overcome the financial problems stemming from the federal government's control of so much land in the West.
"We can't let that expire because it would be very unfair," Hatch told The AP.
"I think we'll get it done," predicted Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
But Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, warned some lawmakers may not go along with an extension.
"As our budgets get tighter, I think a lot of people, especially in the East are asking, 'why are we spending Eastern money to help subsidize programs in the West?" Bishop said.
Oregon, California, Washington state and Idaho have been getting the lion's share of the so-called timber payments, and some counties in those states would like to see Congress act quickly.
Oregon's Curry County faces an across-the-board cut of 35 percent when the new fiscal year begins July 1 to make up a shortfall of $2 million.
"It would render county services unrecognizable," County Commissioner Bill Waddle said of the reductions that will be necessary without help.
"It's a sign of the times and we just have to live with it and accept it," Waddle said of the political wrangling that has delayed a resolution of the issue. "We may not like it. It's just reality. I will not cast any stones."
Lawmakers have competing visions for how to help rural counties that are reliant upon a declining timber industry. The Senate side is focused on an extension that would gradually reduce the amount of money paid out by 5 percent a year for five years.
"We're willing to give a little so we don't get eliminated," said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.
House Republicans are seeking a far more complex overhaul. They want to set revenue targets that would in turn require the U.S. Forest Service to increase timber harvests to meet those targets. The lawmakers say that more active management of the nation's forests is the best way to help rural communities, but it's unlikely the Senate would go along with the House proposal.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., is leading the effort to overhaul the timber payments on the House side. He said his proposal is the best long-term solution because it substitutes economic activity for government funding. But Hastings and other Western lawmakers would be hard-pressed to block the kind of extension being considered in the Senate because the funding is so critical to many counties in his state.
Hastings said he would accept a short-term solution to keep federal payments flowing until his bill could be fully enacted.
"I think there needs to be a bridge, yes," Hastings said.
California's Trinity County is among the counties already planning to make cuts, and hoping help comes soon.
The 10 school districts in Trinity County face a March 15 deadline for passing out pink slips to as many as 20 of their 145 teachers and other personnel unless some new source of revenue comes along, said Jim French, superintendent of schools in Trinity County.
"It's Armageddon in our schools if we don't get it," he said of renewal of the timber payments.
French, who spent last week lobbying members of Congress, said if something doesn't get passed by spring, the increasing partisanship of the election season will make any help for rural counties far less likely.
Barnard reported from Grants Pass, Ore.
Follow Jeff Barnard on Twitter: http://twitter.com/JeffBarnardAP
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.