Congress passes federal bill that renews funding for rural communities near national forests

Tongass
Part of the Tongass National Forest in April 2008. Congress recently passed an appropriations bill that would give Alaska municipalities that are in and around national forest lands millions of dollars. (Creative Commons photo by Xa’at)

Congress is set to send to the president appropriations bills that include continued payments to rural communities near national forest land, including here in Alaska.

Alaska’s congressional delegation announced this week they were able to include a two-year extension for Secure Rural Schools payments in final appropriations bills for this year. That money is paid to municipalities for school operations and maintenance, road work and special projects around forest land. It’s a program that replaced federal funding that used to come directly from timber sales and other business activity on national forests. Communities in Alaska received nearly $11 million through this program in 2019.

Another program, Payment in Lieu of Taxes or PILT, is fully funded in the appropriations bill for the Interior Department. This past year, PILT payments totaled more than $30 million to cities, boroughs and census areas from Southeast Alaska to the North Slope. That money goes to municipalities with untaxable federal land within their boundaries. For instance, more than 96% of the land in the Petersburg borough is part of the Tongass National Forest.

Combined, the federal payments make up a big chunk of revenue for Petersburg’s school district and the general fund of the borough, more than a million dollars in the past year. Petersburg’s borough assembly recently approved letters asking the federal government to continue these payments and calling them extremely important for maintaining a quality education in local schools.

Wrangell’s mayor also testified to Congress on the importance of the funding last month.

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