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September 1, 2014

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Farm bill includes payments to rural counties

Updated Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014 | 12:07 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The farm bill moving toward approval in Congress includes a one-year extension of a federal program that compensates rural counties for federal lands they can't tax. About 1,900 local governments — mostly in the West — received a total of $400 million last year under the program, known as Payment in Lieu of Taxes or PILT.

More than three-quarters of the money went to 12 Western states, with the largest shares going to California, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.

Lawmakers in the West had howled after the PILT program was omitted from a budget deal approved this month. The bill authorizes $425 million to help rural communities pay for basic services such as police and fire protection and road maintenance.

The House approved the farm bill Wednesday on a 251-166 vote, sending the bill to the Senate. The White House says President Barack Obama will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., hailed the one-year extension, saying it would allow local governments to move forward with their budgets.

"At the same time, we need to provide more certainty for these communities in the long term rather than force them to wonder year to year whether Washington will live up to its end of the bargain," Bennet said. Colorado received nearly $32 million last year.

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said the one-year extension "provides Congress with additional time to find a permanent funding source for PILT," a key priority for Western lawmakers from both parties.

The farm bill also allows the U.S. Forest Service to lease up to five new large air tankers to combat wildfires. The agency has had to abandon a large portion of its air tanker fleet in recent years following a rash of accidents. A defense bill approved late last year allowed the Forest Service to take control of seven C-130 Hercules air tankers and 15 smaller smoke-jumper aircrafts to fight wildfires. Several new tankers sought by the Forest Service have been delayed because of a protest by a losing bidder.

"Air tankers don't extinguish wildfires alone, but with these new resources, Colorado will be better prepared to quickly contain the blazes that threaten our homes and businesses," said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo.

The bill also includes language clarifying that forest roads and other logging activities are not subject to federal regulation under the Clean Water Act. The amendment follows a Supreme Court ruling last year that water from logging roads is the same as runoff from a farmer's field and is not industrial pollution.

"The Clean Water Act was not intended to regulate stormwater runoff on forest roads," said Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. If signed into law, the bill will "allow the focus of private, state and federal land managers to return to improving forest management," Crapo said.

Environmental groups called the provision a giveaway to the timber industry that will result in increased pollution of the nation's drinking water.

"Reducing regulation of logging roads under the Clean Water Act doesn't change the fact that logging roads remain a primary cause of sediment pollution," said Bethanie Walder, public lands director of WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group based in New Mexico.

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