Federal spending bill extends payments for rural Alaska communities

Scow Bay in the distance and Petersburg’s ferry terminal as seen from the top of Petersburg Mountain. (Photo by Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

Congress is set to send to the president appropriations bills that include continued payments to rural communities near national forest land, including here in Alaska.

Members of Alaska’s Congressional delegation announced this week they were able to include a two-year extension for Secure Rural Schools payments in final appropriations bills for this year. That money is paid to municipalities for school operations and maintenance, road work and special projects around forest land. It’s a program that replaced federal funding that used to come directly from timber sales and other business activity on national forests. Communities in Alaska received nearly $11 million through this program in 2019.

Related: Wrangell mayor urges US Senate to keep federal funds flowing

Another program, Payment in Lieu of Taxes or PILT, is fully funded in the appropriations bill for the Interior Department. This past year PILT payments totaled more than $30 million to cities, boroughs and census areas from Southeast Alaska to the North Slope. That money goes to municipalities with untaxable federal land within their boundaries. For instance, more than 96 percent of the land in the Petersburg borough is part of the Tongass National Forest.

Combined the federal payments make up a big chunk of revenue for Petersburg’s school district and the general fund of the borough, more than $1 million in the past year. Petersburg’s borough assembly recently approved letters asking the federal government to continue these payments and calling them extremely important for maintaining a quality education in local schools.

Wrangell’s mayor also testified to Congress on the importance of the funding last month.