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Forest Service demands states return timber money, blames sequester

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Michal Conger,Departments

Many timber-heavy states depend on logging for revenue, including a hefty share of money generated from logging on federal lands. But the U.S. Forest Service is asking those states to return 5 percent of the checks they just received and blaming sequestration.

The Forest Service in March ordered 41 states to return a total of $17.9 million. Oregon, which gets the biggest chunk of federal timber money at $63 million, now owes almost $3.6 million of it back.

“The frustration level is off the charts on this,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “This is slap-your-forehead-in-disbelief kind of stuff.”

Wyden wrote the Safe Rural Schools Act, which directs the federal revenue to rural counties’ school and road budgets. He and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the committee’s top Republican, have teamed up to make sure the states keep their money, according to the Associated Press.

Alaska and Wyoming have simply refused to return it, according to AP. They get $13 million and $4 million respectively.

“I have yet to see a legal justification for the U.S. Forest Service to require the state or counties to pay back funds to which they were rightfully entitled and which have been lawfully distributed,” Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead wrote in an April 19, 2013 letter to Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell, according to the Casper Star-Tribune.

A group of House lawmakers also wrote to Tidwell, calling the retroactive cut in payments an ”obvious attempt by President Obama’s administration to make the sequester cuts as painful as possible,”  according to AP.

State officials argue that because the revenue was generated in 2012, it shouldn’t be subject to sequester cuts. But the Forest Service says it has its own 5 percent cut to deal with, and the Safe Rural Schools program won’t be spared.

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