Monday May 06, 2013 | 11:43 AM

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Forest Service is asking Maine for a refund.

As part of the Forest Service’s “sequestration” budget-cutting plan, the agency has requested that states return nearly $18 million that were awarded to rural counties earlier this year for school and infrastructure projects, according to recent news reports.

Maine’s share is tiny – just $3,648.36. That’s because payments to states from the Secure Rural Schools program are based on how many acres of timberland the U.S. Forest Service manages in each state. And the agency only owns about 53,700 acres in Maine, the vast majority of which is part of the White Mountain National Forest on the state’s border with New Hampshire.

Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell requested the refunds from governors back in late March after Congress and the White House failed to come up with a different way to cut spending other than the across-the-board reductions required under sequestration. The agency’s budget was cut 5.1 percent, so Tidwell asked for the same slice back from Secure Rural Schools grants.

“You will soon receive a bill for collection in the amount of $3,648.36 to return the sequestered amount,” Tidwell wrote to Maine Gov. Paul LePage, according a copies of letters sent to governors that were posted online. “We regret having to take this action, but we have no alternative under sequestration.”

Other states stand to take much bigger hits. Oregon, for instance, would lose nearly $3.6 million while California would lose roughly $2 million.

Not surprisingly, the refund requests haven’t gone over well with many governors and lawmakers in Washington.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, grilled Tidwell during a congressional hearing last month on the agency’s plans to both cut less timber next fiscal year and seek money back from states.

“Essentially you have communities that are already on the edge of bankruptcy, that are desperate to do more work in the woods and have asked for some predictability from the federal government,” said Wyden, according to the Democrat’s office. “And in response, the Forest Service is saying, ‘Not only will we cut less timber, we’d also like some of that money we gave you back.’”

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell have apparently told the feds that they won’t give up the respective $197,000 and $826,000 that their states received, according to The Associated Press. The AP reported that the National Governors Association has asked the Forest Service for legal justification for the requests.

No word yet on whether Maine has cut a check to the Forest Service.

 

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
Kevin can be reached at 317-6256 or kmiller@mainetoday.com

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