Pocahontas County, West Virginia is one of the counties that hosts the Monongahela National Forest, which welcomes more than a million visitors to our state each year. However, the Monongahela National Forest occupies over 50 percent of Pocahontas County. And, because the forest is federally owned, it is tax-exempt, leaving few opportunities for the 9,000 residents of Pocahontas County to pursue economic development.
Because the federal government shares any receipts it receives with local counties, traditionally, communities with large portions of federal lands derived a significant portion of their revenues from the timber harvesting occurring in national forests. But, when federal timber harvesting shut down in the 1990s, rural counties faced a fiscal crisis. To address the loss in revenue, Congress enacted the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program which provides federal funding to offset the loss. Fourteen rural counties in West Virginia — Barbour, Grant, Greenbrier, Hampshire, Hardy, Mercer, Monroe, Nicholas, Pendleton, Pocahontas, Preston, Randolph, Tucker and Webster — receive over $1.7 million annually in SRS funding to finance critical services.
Last month, I invited Pocahontas County High School science teacher Justin Dilley to testify before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee about the importance of SRS funding to Pocahontas County High School and other rural high schools across the country.
Congress allowed the law authorizing SRS payments to expire earlier this year. Mr. Dilley said that, as a result, his school district is facing a decrease in funding from $750,000 to just $72,000. The uncertainty around funding makes it nearly impossible for school officials to make long-term plans. Pocahontas County has already had to eliminate five full-time positions in the areas of art, special education, and maintenance.
If SRS is not renewed, Pocahontas County and other school districts across West Virginia stand to lose more school personnel. Our students will have fewer opportunities. To prevent this from happening, I’m sponsoring a commonsense bill with a bipartisan group of my Senate colleagues to reauthorize Secure Rural Schools for another two years and ensure that our rural counties receive the necessary funding to give our students the education they deserve.
However, as important as it is to renew SRS, simply reauthorizing the program is not enough.
While SRS assists those counties impacted by the loss of the timber industry, these SRS counties are not the only ones facing economic challenges. Many communities in my state are grappling with recent downturns in coal production. With this in mind, I have advocated for extending SRS eligibility to counties impacted by the weakening of the coal industry.
For over a century, West Virginia has been the energy backbone of our great nation. Our coal-producing counties have produced the energy that powered our nation to greatness. It’s simply wrong for the federal government to turn its back on them now.
As the disparities between rural and urban America continue to grow, Congress must recognize that we are all in this together. That’s what SRS is about, and I trust that my colleagues will rise to the occasion and take advantage of this important opportunity to secure the SRS program and provide stable funding for our schools and communities across the country.
Manchin (D-W.Va.) is the state’s senior senator.