Alaska timber communities worried about repayment demand

JUNEAU — A federal demand for repayment of funds has Alaska timber communities worried that a program that relies on the money for schools and other projects could be doomed.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell has asked 41 states to return a total of $17.9 million in timber payments as a result of automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration.

Those timber payments are used for schools, roads, and search and rescue operations in rural communities and for conservation projects.

Petersburg borough manager Steve Giesbrecht said he was confused by the government’s demand, which could result in Petersburg returning $55,000, APRN reported last week.

“Especially considering that the money we received is for 2012,” he said. “How can that be done?”

Petersburg is one of the biggest recipients of money in Alaska under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self- Determination Act. The borough was given more than $1 million last year, with most of the money going to education and the remainder to infrastructure.

Giesbrecht said the community could find the funds for repayment if needed. But he and city officials from Juneau, Wrangell and other areas fear the program is at risk.

If it ends, it would be like a house of cards, he said, because Petersburg can only collect so much in property tax from its small population.

Tidwell, in a letter to Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell in March, said the agency regretted having to make the request but had no choice under the budget cutting plan.

In Alaska, the amount involved in repayments exceeds $800,000. Parnell has refused to return it.

Instead of repayment, Alaska was given the option of agreeing to reductions in the amount of money the state receives under the act for things such as conservation projects.

Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers previously told The Associated Press the agency was reviewing its options to ensure compliance with the law and minimize the impact on the states.

Communities in Tongass National Forest received more than $10 million under the program in the past year, while communities in Chugach National Forest received about $4 million.