Since 1908, the U.S. Forest Service has paid 25 percent of its gross receipts to the states for spending on roads and schools in the counties where national forests are located. In the Pacific Northwest, receipts started to decline in the late 1980s due to lower timber sales as a result of efforts to protect the spotted owl. In 1993, Congress responded with additional “spotted owl payments” to the affected states. A 2000 law spread these payments to all national forests, but the bulk continued to go to the Pacific Northwest.
When the law was reauthorized last year, members of Congress used it as an opportunity to grab money for their states. According to the Associated Press:
The federal largesse initially focused on a handful of Western states, with Oregon alone receiving nearly $2 billion. Spending of that magnitude, though, sparked a new timber war -- this one among politicians eager to get their hands on some of the logging money. A four-year renewal of the law, passed last year, authorizes an additional $1.6 billion for the program through 2011 and shifts substantial sums to states where the spotted owl never flew. While money initially was based on historic logging levels, now any state with federal forests -- even those with no history of logging -- is eligible for millions in Forest Service dollars. Doling out all that taxpayer money is based less on logging losses than on the powerful reality of political clout.
Democratic New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman bluntly admitted that the money grab was a result of good ole congressional logrolling:
Of much more important note: New Mexico's two senators served as chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate committee that rewrote the timber payments formula. New Mexico's increase under the new formula was 692 percent… Bingaman defended the changes. ‘Frankly we had to broaden the program in order to get the support to go ahead and do a reauthorization, and that's exactly what we did,’ he said in an interview.
And of course, the porkfest was bipartisan:
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was an early backer of the law and provided political cover for Republicans to support it… Timber harvests in Kentucky's Daniel Boone National Forest have been modest in recent decades -- ranging from $7,600 to $77,000 annually -- but Clay County, Ky., which includes part of the forest, received $338,510 this year from the timber program, a 341 percent increase.
A Cato essay on the U.S. Forest Service notes that a “reform step would be to revive federalism by eliminating federal forest subsidies to the states and turning portions of the national forests over to the states. Other activities could be privatized… Some experts have proposed full privatization of the national forests.”
Such reforms would help to address the chaotic nature of current forest management through the federal political process, as illustrated by the spotted owl saga.