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Murkowski, Wyden: Forest Service Must Help Rural Communities, Not Penalize Them

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today sent a letter to U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell calling on the agency to end its threat to take back payments made to timber communities under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act.

The Forest Service recently told states that because of the automatic, across-the-board federal budget cuts commonly known as “sequestration,” they would have to return $18 million paid out at the beginning of this year. Alaska is being asked to return $826,000.

In response to questions from the Energy Committee earlier this month, Chief Tidwell said states that miss deadlines to repay the money face interest payments and penalties.

In the letter, Wyden and Murkowski called on the agency to halt any penalties or fines and work to minimize the impact of mandatory budget cuts on states and counties. The law does not require the collection of fines and penalties, and the decision to pursue them is wholly within the Forest Service’s purview.

“The Forest Service’s efforts to seek repayment of SRS payments made months ago, and this new threat of fines and penalties, are deeply disconcerting,” Murkowski and Wyden wrote.

The Secure Rural Schools program provides a lifeline to communities in 42 states impacted by the severe decline in timber receipts from national forest lands. Communities that once had thriving timber industries now depend on the funds to pay for schools, roads and emergency services at a time when many rural counties face limited budgets. Putting additional burdens on those communities because of a bureaucratic mistake is unacceptable, the senators said.

“The Forest Service failed to plan for the impact of sequestration on SRS payments and rural communities should not have to pay the price for the bad planning of your agency,” Murkowski and Wyden wrote.

The Forest Service manages more than 22 million acres of national forest lands in Alaska, including nearly all of the land in Southeast.

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