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Bill to extend timber funds

WASHINGTON &

Payments to rural counties hurt by cutbacks in federal logging would continue for four years under an energy bill being considered by Congress.

A deal reached Wednesday would set aside more than $1.5 billion to extend the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act through 2012.

Another $350 million would be directed to rural states through the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program, which reimburses state and local governments for federally owned property.

Lawmakers and staff members stressed that the deal was tentative, but said it was included in energy legislation that could come up for a vote in the House as soon as today.

A Senate Democratic aide said the plan would authorize $554 million for the timber program in the fiscal year that starts next October, with payments decreasing each year until they reach $202 million in the 2012 fiscal year. The money for the program known as PILT, for payments in lieu of taxes, would be authorized for only one year.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, hailed the new plan. Baucus led a group of Western senators who negotiated the timber payment language in the energy bill.

"This deal will throw a lifeline to rural counties across the West and pump dollars into schools, roads and emergency services. It took a lot of elbow grease, but we are about to do the right thing for rural counties," Baucus said.

Western lawmakers have worked for more than two years to secure funding for the rural schools law, which reimburses 700 rural counties in 39 states hurt by federal logging cutbacks imposed in the 1990s. The counties lost money when the federal government imposed restrictions on logging in national forests to help preserve the spotted owl and other endangered species.

The law expired in September 2006, but Congress approved a one-year extension this spring.