On the Front Lines of Wildfires, Counties Fear Waning Funding

CalFire on July 29, 2018 battles wildfire as smoke rises near Fallbrook, California in San Diego County.

CalFire on July 29, 2018 battles wildfire as smoke rises near Fallbrook, California in San Diego County. Shutterstock

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COMMENTARY | County officials say that "payments in lieu of taxes" are necessary for providing key services, including fighting wildfires.

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Yosemite National Park, and described it as “a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.” Residents of Tuolumne County, Calif. like myself are blessed to have that solemn cathedral in our back yard. The wonders of the Yosemite Valley draw millions of tourists to our communities each year to hike, camp and explore this natural treasure.

Our federal lands serve as a living testament to our nation’s commitment to conservation and recreation. However, local governments face unique challenges in maintaining these public trusts. As protected federal lands, these national treasures can’t be taxed and are restricted in their ability to generate local revenue. This leaves local host governments with fewer resources to provide essential services to residents and visitors. 

This is why I went to Washington, D.C. last week with several dozen other county officials from across the country: to share our story with the White House and Congress about the urgent needs we face, particularly as we fight back a historic wildfire season. 

Congress acknowledged our challenges by passing the Payments In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) Act in 1976, which created a program to provide funds to counties like ours to offset costs and help make up for lost property tax revenues.  

Tuolumne County is 77 percent federally owned, and we received just over $2.7 million in PILT this year. Tuolumne County utilizes these funds to support law enforcement, search and rescue operations, local schools, emergency response services and infrastructure maintenance. 

This summer, Tuolumne County sent our own county fire units to assist with structure protection during this summer’s Donnell Fire when it was clear that the U.S. Forest Service did not have the resources. The demands on our law enforcement resources were significantly increased as well. PILT is key to ensuring that counties have the resources to partner with the federal government emergency situations like these.  

Congress also reauthorized the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program for another two years in this year’s omnibus appropriations package. SRS is another crucial program that compensates national forest counties for declining timber receipts from harvests on public lands. Tuolumne County received $1.1 million in SRS this year, which is split between schools and local roads. 

This year, Congress appropriated $553 million dollars for PILT to the 62 percent of counties nationwide that have federal land within their boundaries. If Congress does not also find a long-term funding solution for national forest counties beyond this short reauthorization, PILT will be spread even thinner.

Without mandatory, long-term funding, PILT will remain subject to the uncertainty of the annual congressional appropriations process. Congress should act now to fully fund PILT and SRS, and find a permanent solution to ensure county governments have a stable stream of revenue in the future. 

Randy Hanvelt serves on the Tuolumne County, California Board of Supervisors.

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