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Arizona, 21 other states to have federal timber payments reduced

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WASHINGTON – The federal government will deduct more than $860,000 from its timber payment to Arizona this year, some of the more than $15 million the U.S. Forest Service said it will withhold from 22 states.

A Forest Service letter to governors last week said the deductions are needed to keep the agency’s budget in balance after the cuts from the federal budget sequestration that took effect earlier this year.

“We regret having to take this action, but must ensure that the Forest Service meets the requirements” of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in the letters.

The Aug. 19 letter to Gov. Jan Brewer said Arizona will still receive about $1.1 million this year after having $861,351.95 withheld from its payment. Brewer’s office did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.

Oregon was hit the hardest by the cuts, missing out on nearly $4 million this year. In all, the cuts hit 41 states and Puerto Rico, ranging from Oregon down to North Dakota, which lost $32.13 in its timber payment.

The payments have been made for decades by the Forest Service with proceeds on the sale of timber on federal lands. Each state’s share is determined not by the amount of timber taken from the state but under a formula set in the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, which also sets rules for what states can spend the money on.

The timber payment cuts were first announced in March, when Tidwell told the states that they could either repay the federal government then with money they had received in fiscal 2012 or have it deducted from their payments this year.

Most of the states that owed the least paid up in March, but Arizona and 21 other states kept the money and opted to have it withheld now. In total, the Forest Service received or withheld nearly $17.8 million.

But the Western Governors’ Association has argued that the federal government does not have the right to take back money that was distributed to states in 2012, before federal budget sequestration took effect.

In a May letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the association said that federal agencies do not have the authority to retroactively cut funds to states under the Budget Control Act of 2011, which mandated the sequestration.

“The act does not include language authorizing retroactive application of the spending reductions or limitations,” the letter said. “Nor does it contain language requiring reimbursement of funds that were already distributed in order to satisfy spending limitations.”

Ann Walker, a policy manager for the governors’ association, said Tuesday that pulling money back from the states is not as cost-effective as it seems. Much of the money the states receive goes toward fire prevention and emergency response, she said. And some of the projects funded by these payments are required to be in a national forest or to benefit national forests, according to the Forest Service’s website.

“The things that get done with this are really a benefit to the federal government,” Walker said.

The association compared the timber-payment reductions to a previous Interior Department attempt to withhold mineral royalty payments to 34 states, including Arizona. The department reversed itself Monday, telling states that it would repay what it had deducted from their 2013 payments and would not deduct anything next year.