The kids get on the bus every morning at 6:05. That’s because their bus ride in the tiny Alton School District in Oregon County, Missouri, is an hour and a half long. The arduous bus routes and the hardship suffered by 6-year-olds riding the bus are a direct result of Congress’s failure to do its job. This failure comes at the expense of a young girl about 50 inches tall with a gap-tooth grin and a Hulk backpack, sound asleep on a hard, cold bus seat.
We’re all disappointed when Congress fails to act on the promises made, and many issues facing our nation are hard, with no ready solutions. But the Secure Rural Schools Act, which expired in 2015, is not a hard issue. The Act provides funding for rural school districts that host national forests, replacing a small portion of the revenue lost to local school districts because of changes in the management of federal lands.
Oregon County is a beautiful place, with some of the best that the Missouri landscape has to offer. Back in the 1930s, the federal government realized as much and created the Mark Twain National Forest. For decades, the forest was managed with timber harvests. Harvests have dwindled as environmental uses became more highly valued than the management of forest resources for multiple uses. Revenues to local entities have declined as well; a law passed early in the 20th century mandates that a portion of those timber revenues goes to the local schools and county government.
In 2000, Congress responded to the declining timber sales revenue by passing the Secure Rural Schools Act, increasing the local share in the formula dividing revenues between the federal government and local counties and school districts. The law was reauthorized in 2006 and several times since, before lapsing in 2015. In Missouri, failure to renew the law resulted in statewide revenues dropping by over two-thirds in fiscal year 2016. For the Alton School District, funding has dropped from a high of $414,440 in 2010 to $133,267 this year. There are fewer teachers in the district and bus routes have been consolidated, consigning some students to a commute nearly as long as the time they spend in class.
It’s important that we preserve natural resources, saving wild places for generations to come, but all too often, we fail to take into account the costs borne by the communities hosting federally owned land. Over 100,000 acres of the Alton School District are owned by the federal government, nearly one-third of the total land area in the sprawling but sparsely populated school district. Locals see little revenue from tourists and are quick to tell you that the cost of policing the federal lands far outweighs any economic benefit to the local area from the forest. There is a continuing economic cost from the refusal to harvest timber, as loggers look for other careers and places to live and school districts struggle in a time of tight state budgets.
It is impossible to communicate the frustration that local residents feel. National monuments, parks and forests are seen as an undiluted good, one that couldn’t possibly be opposed by anybody but the most rapacious logging company or oil driller. It’s a good bet that no voter in Kansas City or New York City has ever imagined that federal lands are anything but a blessing. This disconnect between those who love wilderness from a distance and the people who live near public lands is a real problem for our country. It should be possible to live near one of our nation’s most beautiful places without sacrificing the future of your kids.
Congress has a responsibility to that 6-year-old on the bus, and it’s time they acted to reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools Act.