Local services sustain federal public lands

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One afternoon this past July in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Billings and McKenzie counties, N.D., the temperature was 90 degrees, the humidity was 88 percent, and there was no wind.  A 21-year-old man and two others, a 23-year-old woman and a 22-year-old man, were lost and dehydrated.

After unsuccessful attempts to locate them, rescuers finally began to zero in on their location, dispatched a medical helicopter and prepared a landing zone.  A county ambulance sat ready two miles away. 

During the operation, one of the first responders fainted due to heat exhaustion and dehydration. Throughout the day, the helicopter and county ambulance ferried seven ailing people from the park to the local hospital. By 10 p.m., a total of 25 people participated in successful search-and-rescue operations, including the ambulance crew, visitors, National Park Service employees and volunteers. 

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Search-and-rescue efforts like this one don’t always grab headlines but occur all the time. With more than 280 million people visiting America’s national parks and other federal public lands each year, safety operations are an everyday necessity. And they are made possible by a program called Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT. 

For nearly 40 years, the PILT program has provided funding to counties and other local governments to offset forgone tax revenue from federal land within their boundaries. Local governments are unable to tax the property values or products derived from federal lands, yet they still pay for services related to them, like searches and rescues, emergency medical care and fire protection. These county services — along with trash collection, roads and bridges, law enforcement, sewage systems and more — allow people to enjoy public lands.

Counties provide significant support for national parks and forests, wildlife refuges, recreation areas and other land that covers roughly 640 million acres, or nearly 28 percent of the U.S. Many rural counties have more than 90 percent of their area occupied by public land. Commercial activities on this land, such as timber harvesting, oil and gas leasing, and livestock grazing generate $14 billion annually for the federal government. 

The PILT program uses a small portion of this revenue to help local governments continue to provide essential services. This year, the Department of the Interior paid $437 million to approximately 1,900 counties. 

For example, my home county, Chelan County, Wash., is a rural county with substantial acreage of public lands, nearly 78 percent. We share our western border with the three largest urban counties of the state. We appreciate the visitors who recreate on our public lands and enjoy our valleys filled with commercial orchards producing apples, pears and cherries, but it is not uncommon for our search-and- rescue crews to respond to several incidents on our lakes, rivers and mountains every week.

This year, Chelan County received $2.6 million to help fund search and rescue, public health, environmental compliance, law enforcement and other general government services. The payments are critical, representing 7.5 percent of our general fund budget and allowing us to provide a safe environment for our visitors.

The authorization for PILT is set to expire at the end of this month. Without congressional action, communities across the country could face devastating budget shortfalls affecting public safety, education, infrastructure and other local government functions.

That’s why the National Association of Counties urges members of Congress to support a full investment in the PILT program in the next fiscal year and permanent funding for the future. 

County leaders are talking with lawmakers in Washington, D.C., this week about the vital services PILT supports in communities across the country. For anyone who enjoys America’s vast public lands, the case is clear. Without PILT, search-and-rescue operations like the one that took place in Theodore Roosevelt National Park this past July — and many other important services — would not be possible. 

 

Walter is a Chelan County, Wash., commissioner and the chair of the National Association of Counties Federal Lands Steering Committee.