The U.S. Forest Service is contributing to the lack of funding for our local schools and townships, causing property taxes to increase and services to be cut back. How? By neglecting to follow the Allegheny National Forest (ANF) management plan that the agency itself created.
As a major landowner with more than a half-million acres exempt from property taxes in Warren, Forest, Elk and McKean counties, the Forest Service returns a portion of its timbering proceeds to townships and school districts within the ANF. These payments are part of a well-crafted plan to manage the forest and provide economic resources to the townships and school districts. This funding stream, however, has been choked off in recent years, much to the detriment of schools and townships.
The value of the ANF timber harvest peaked at $25.6 million in 2005. It reached a low point of $5 million in 2009 at the height of the recession. These figures are starting to rebound, but ANF timbering activity continues to fall well below levels set by its own management plan.
For the 11-year period between 2003 and 2013, the ANF plan called for the harvesting of nearly 600 million board feet (MBF) of timber. The actual harvest during those 11 years was only 279 MBF, not even half of what was called for in the plan. The sad fact is this kind of performance has been ongoing for two decades, and the consequences have been devastating for schools, townships, the timber industry and the health of the forest itself.
For example: The Forest Area School District, which receives some of the largest payments from ANF timber sales, lost a potential $13.5 million in funding over the 11 years as a result of undercutting in the ANF. Warren County School District lost $11.2 million, Kane Area School District, $7.6 million, and Bradford Area School District, $5 million. Total payments lost to all of the townships and school districts during this period exceed $81 million dollars. When the undercut from the previous decade is factored in, the lost revenue becomes even more sobering.
Local school districts are being forced to cut programs and employees in order to balance their budgets. Funding from ANF timber sales could be part of the solution for the Forest Area School District and other schools if only the ANF would follow its own management plan. Nearly 50 percent of Forest County is comprised of government-owned lands. With a very small tax base and limited commercial business interests, it is obvious that the school would benefit greatly from increased timbering in the ANF.
The story is much the same for townships confronted by insufficient funds to properly maintain roads and bridges and provide other services to their residents.
In addition to the loss of revenue, there are other consequences to under-management. The forest is managed on a 100-year rotation. Mature trees are harvested when they reach maturity and their value is at its highest. If they are not harvested at maturity, their value degrades and they can become disease ridden. However, when properly managed and harvested in its prime, the timber brings maximum value on the market, which benefits the owner and, in this case, the school districts and townships. Other benefits include stimulating new forest growth, which improves the ecosystem and provides a rapidly growing habitat that attracts all manner of wildlife.
In recent years, as a result of limited cutting on the ANF, private lands have been over-cut, and the scarcity of suitable timber has resulted in the loss of local industry and employment opportunities. With the economic downturn that began in 2008 and limited amounts of timber available from the ANF, the timber industry has downsized to half its original size. This has resulted in a number of mill closings and a significant loss of jobs. Without additional timber from the ANF, this will not change. By simply following its forest management plan, the ANF has the power to help companies expand and create new jobs.
Increased educational and local-government funding, a healthier forest habitat and a growing local timber industry are all benefits that can be obtained if the ANF would make the commitment to follow its own forest management plan. It will help ensure that this wonderful resource will continue to provide future generations with the same benefits enjoyed by so many in the past. In North Central Pennsylvania, the future depends on it.
John Peterson is a former Congressman representing Pennsylvania’s 5th District and executive director of the Allegheny Forest Alliance. He lives in Pleasantville.