Most of us know them well, and some of us are lucky to call them home, but every Idahoan knows that rural communities are the backbone of our state’s character. As valuable as these towns are to outdoor enthusiasts visiting our public lands, they are even more special to those who live there. But rural communities that charm visitors also often face tough economic realities. As part of our work supporting public lands, CVI is investigating the challenges facing rural communities to identify how public lands enthusiasts, rural and urban alike, can help support rural Idaho.
Rural Idaho’s relationship with public lands has always had a substantial economic component. We know that public lands boost spending from tourism and outdoor recreation while also attracting new businesses and residents, stimulating the economies of public lands gateway communities. But the economic relationship between the federal government and rural counties–the entities largely responsible for funding schools, taking care of roads, and providing emergency services in rural areas–is a complicated one.
Public lands like National Forests, Bureau of Land Management (BLM)-managed land, or even the Idaho National Laboratory, are non-taxable. This means that many counties in Idaho are unable to collect property taxes from a majority of the land within their borders. Historically, the gap in tax revenue was more than made up for by the deal the federal agencies struck with counties: 25% of revenue from resource extraction on public lands (logging, mostly) went directly back to county governments to support their work providing infrastructure and services. This worked well for years, but as global resource markets became more competitive, rural counties have watched nervously as logging and other extractive activities on public lands ebbed, flowed, and then declined–taking “revenue sharing” payments with them and making bills harder to pay.
Congress responded by creating two critical programs. The Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program, enacted in 1976, directs funding to public lands counties across the country using a formula that takes the amount of federal land within a county and that county’s population into account. It is the government’s way of being a good landowner and a good neighbor. In 2018 PILT brought over $36 million to Idaho’s public lands counties. In 2000 Congress created the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program that began directing payments to counties to address the decline in natural resource extraction (and therefore revenue sharing payments) on public lands. SRS brought an additional $22.5 million to Idaho’s rural counties in 2018. Both PILT and SRS have been fundamental to the resilience of rural economies as they adapt to changing times while keeping their ways of life intact: these programs have kept schools open, kept roads clear, and funded search and rescue operations deep in lands that all Americans own.
For years PILT and SRS have both been used as political footballs. Counties never know if the programs will be approved, delayed, or partially funded, leaving rural communities and critical services hanging in the balance. A number of leaders, including many of Idaho’s members of congress, have proposed solutions. PILT and SRS could be fully funded and permanently reauthorized. PILT could be reformed to better serve the counties in Idaho with the fewest residents. An endowment for county payments could be created, bringing stability to local budgets. Whichever solutions prevail one thing is for sure: every community in Idaho must be able to provide its residents and visitors with basic, essential services.
We are at a critical point in protecting Idaho’s legacy of public lands. Growth means more people getting outside and less room for them to roam. Urbanization means fresh air, clean water, and open spaces are harder to come by. Who we are is intrinsically linked to the rural character of our state; we cannot have thriving public lands without thriving public lands communities. CVI believes that speaking up for policies like PILT and SRS is speaking up for rural communities and for public lands. It’s one of the many ways we can stand together and ensure that our outdoor way of life endures for future generations.