Senate lets USFSkeep its subsidies 

National taxpayer advocacy groups and environmental activists expressed their outrage last week after Senate lawmakers killed an amendment that would have reduced taxpayer-subsidized logging on national forest lands.

The proposal, offered by Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nev.) would have amended the Senate Interior Appropriations bill to shift funds from the U.S. Forest Service’s commercial timber sales program into forest restoration projects such as road maintenance, fish and wildlife conservation, and watershed rehabilitation. The amendment failed by a 54-to-43 vote. Advocates expressed little surprise when both Montana Sens. Conrad Burns and Max Baucus voted against reducing the timber subsidies.

Despite all the rhetoric over slashing the federal budget, Congress continues to subsidize private logging operations in national forests to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars annually. This year, the Forest Service requested $197 million for its commercial timber program. A Senate subcommittee granted the agency $30 million more than the agency requested.

Nevertheless, figures from the congressional General Accounting Office (GAO) show that the Forest Service’s commercial timber program continues to lose money because the agency charges private timber companies less than what it costs to prepare and administer those sales.

Between 1992 and 1997, the Forest Service lost approximately $2 billion subsidizing private commercial timber operations, according to GAO figures provided by Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent taxpayer watchdog group based out of Washington, D.C. Those same figures show that between 1995 and 1997 alone, Region One of the Forest Service (based in Missoula) lost more than $133 million.

The Bryan provision would have eliminated $33 million from the Forest Service commercial timber program and redirected $13 million for fish and wildlife management programs, as well as for maintenance and repair of the more than 380,000 miles of roads in the national forests. An additional $10 million would have been redirected to managing and surveying threatened and endangered species. The remaining $10 million was slated for federal debt reduction.

This is not the first time the so-called Bryan Timber Subsidy Amendment has been killed on the Senate floor. In 1997, the amendment lost in a 50-50 tie. The amendment never made it to the floor for a vote during the 1998 session.

Still, an effort by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) in the House of Representatives may prohibit Congress from appropriating further tax money for the construction of new logging roads. If a House-Senate conference committee accepts the House bill’s language, tax dollars will no longer be used for building timber roads for private logging companies, saving taxpayers about $50 million annually.

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