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No SRS in sight; county plans gun show fund-raiser

Search and rescue dollars aren’t famous among the monies local jurisdictions receive from the federal government in the form of Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) and Secure Rural Schools (SRS) payouts. PILT was renewed late last year, but while Idaho County and local school districts anxiously await Congressional action on SRS, Idaho County Undersheriff Jim Gorges is trying to schedule a gun show to help fund one of the county’s basic services.

Noting that “search and rescue responsibility falls to the local taxpayer” to fund whether or not the federal money ever comes through, Idaho County Commission chairman Jim Chmelik said he has seen no indication that Congress will act anytime soon to renew the cash flow on which counties and schools throughout the western states have come to depend.

In the meantime, under the 1908 law that established the “25-percent fund” out of which the Forest Service will pay out a portion of its timber receipts to 746 timber-producing counties nationwide. But with timber harvests diminished in favor of protections for oceangoing fish and the spotted owls, Idaho’s counties will see a total of about $2 million for the year compared to the more than $28 million SRS would have started sending out in January had the program been reauthorized.

“I don’t see anything coming out of the Congress,” Chmelik said. “That’s why I keep saying we need to do something different.”

The 25-percent payments are anticipated in February.

Specifically, Chmelik wants to see the Congress set aside environmentalists’ objections and approve faster timber harvests. He has supported – and the commission last November voted to continue supporting – the American Lands Council effort to transfer ownership of federal lands to western states.

With a run of Republican victories shifting the balance of power in the House of Representatives, another of the ideas the commission has supported may get new life: Rep. Raul Labrador backed the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act in 2013. That bill, if revived and ratified in place of SRS, would set out 200,000 acres of Forest Service land to be managed as trust land by a state-appointed board of trustees.

Two years ago, when the concept got a hearing in the House Natural Resources public lands subcommittee, Labrador said: “This legislation would serve as a model to phase out the expired Secure Rural Schools program and is a long-term solution designed to empower rural counties to sustainably generate revenue by locally managing federal forests. It will reinvigorate rural communities to create jobs, bring in revenues that help schools, roads and other civic programs and improve forest health.”

In an interview last Friday, Jan. 23, Chmelik did not specifically mention the ALC approach, on which he campaigned in the state lieutenant governor’s primary election last year, but he talked at length about the end result he hopes to see: local forest resources put into production to provide lumber for housing, jobs for workers and a steady, predictable flow of tax dollars to fund the county government and local schools.

Chmelik said it is not unusual for counties to host fund-raising events on public property, but Idaho County is double-checking with its insurance provider before the commission signs off on the event, likely to be scheduled in April at the county search and rescue building at the Idaho County Airport. He noted that only federal firearms-licensed dealers will be allowed to sell guns, but that other vendors will likely be hawking other wares.

On Jan. 21, the Lewiston Tribune noted tables would cost vendors $35, while public admission would be $5 per person.

Chmelik also said the county and the Bureau of Land Management have exchanged letters regarding the transfer of land near Riggins for use as a shooting range, but that the process may take weeks or months to complete.

“I hope it’s sooner rather than later,” he said.

Labrador shepherded the shooting range legislation into law late last year, but was not available for comment on the SRS issue last Monday, Jan. 26.


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