POINT OF VIEW: Congress should step up for rural communities

Derek Kilmer

FOR NORTH OLYMPIC Peninsula residents, severe storms aren’t a nasty surprise.

They’re a fact of life.

Our roads take a beating every year, and our local counties are barely able to keep up with the cost of clearing roads of debris, much less take on the burden of rebuilding after a washout.

But when there are only a handful of ways to access the West End communities and Olympic National Park, not making those repairs isn’t an option.

Road closures aren’t just threatening the day-to-day commute for folks who live in more remote areas of our region.

They’re preventing visitors from enjoying the farthest reaches of our park.

If people can’t get here, that takes money out of the pocket of local businesses and eliminates jobs that depend on our outdoor economy.

For years, the federal government was a partner in supporting the budgets of rural counties so they could invest in community essentials like roads, schools and law enforcement through a key program called Secure Rural Schools (SRS).

Don’t let the name fool you — SRS is about so much more than schools.

It’s about the federal government paying its fair share to communities surrounded by federal forest lands.

To truly understand how critical this program is, it’s useful to know how it first got started.

For more than 100 years, the Forest Service shared timber revenues from federal lands with nearby communities.

This was an effective way to compensate for the fact that federal lands can’t be taxed by local counties.

Like traditional tax revenue, the funding generated by timber sales was used to support critical community services like education, law enforcement and infrastructure projects.

When harvest levels started to decline, these communities were left without a way to pay the bills.

The SRS program was started with a buy-in from Democrats and Republicans who wanted to make sure that communities could afford to maintain essential services.

After all, there aren’t Republican roads or Democratic schools.

Every community needs this basic infrastructure.

Despite the broad bipartisan support for SRS funding, congressional failures have put this program at risk since it expired in 2015.

This could have a serious impact on the Peninsula.

Last winter, we saw road closures on Upper Hoh, Undie and Quinault South Shore roads, just to name a few.

It was SRS payments that enabled communities to complete emergency repairs and bridge the gap until additional funding came through.

Peninsula counties depend on SRS payments to keep those communities running.

In Clallam and Jefferson counties alone, SRS payments totaled more than $1.7 million in 2015, the last year the program was authorized.

We are going to continue a bipartisan push to reauthorize this critical program.

Our rural communities can’t afford for SRS to become a bargaining chip.

Storms don’t stop because this Congress can’t get its act together.

Sheriff’s departments still need deputies.

Schools still need educators.

It’s time for Washington, D.C., to pay attention to the needs and concerns of all American communities.

To do that, we need to bring certainty to the Secure Rural Schools program so — just like the rain — we will know it will be there.

_________

Derek Kilmer, a Port Angeles native, is a congressman who represents the 6th Congressional District, which includes Clallam and Jefferson counties. He lives in Gig Harbor.

Randy Johnson serves on the Clallam County Board of Commissioners.

Randy Johnson

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