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Forest Service Cuts Maintenance Projects In Sequester Response

US Forest Service. A trail crew widens the tread on the Tubal Cain Trail in the Olympic National Forest.

Remember the "sequester" cuts? The dust is finally settling and the consequences becoming real for a program in the U.S. Forest Service that sends money to timber counties.

At the beginning of sequestration, the Forest Service demanded that rural counties pay back some of the timber payments they'd already received and spent. But all of the recipients of the federal aid refused to go along with this approach to across-the-board federal budget cuts.

So instead, the Forest Service now is taking the cut out of money still under its own control. The targeted funds pay for road and trail maintenance and conservation projects.

In Port Angeles, Washington, Clallam County administrator Jim Jones says it feels like "one step forward, one step back."

"I think ultimately the recreating public who would go out and use those roads and those trails on the national forest will see less upkeep," says Jones. "That's probably in the long run negative, but the other reality is if you don't have the money to spend, you can't do the work."

Asked for a specific example, Jones says the Forest Service cancelled a contract for a county jail chain gang, which would have performed trail work in the Olympic National Forest this year.

In Oregon, Mt. Hood National Forest spokesperson Laura Pramuk says it's very difficult to gauge how many temporary jobs disappeared in the region due to the project cancellations, but the impact is "probably not insignificant."

In her domain, Pramuk says projects that had to be pulled back included forest thinning to improve ecosystem health, habitat restoration on a creek near Zigzag and culvert replacements on forest roads in Hood River County. She says about two-thirds of the previously approved 2013 spending under the Secure Rural Schools Act, Title II was cancelled in the Mt. Hood and Willamette National Forests.

Oregon receives more than any other state under the Secure Rural Schools funding formula. So it also took the biggest hit when the sequestration budget knives came out. The Forest Service rescinded about $3.9 million it planned to spend in Oregon forests. That compares to about $1.7 million cut in Idaho and $1.3 million in Washington state.

"The pressure on the Forest Service is immense," observes independent research forester Dale Waddell. "It is not a happy situation."

Waddell says the cancellation of large numbers of job-creating projects is bound to put more focus on Congressional efforts to "get some harvesting revenue into those rural counties" by increasing logging.

Waddell is based in the foothills of Clackamas County, Oregon. He chaired an advisory committee that recommended which maintenance and conservation projects the Mt. Hood and Willamette National Forests should fund.

On the Web:

Letter from U.S. Forest Service to Wash. Gov. Jay Inslee - USDA
Secure Rural Schools Act - US Forest Service

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.