Turning pavement into gravel roads seems severe, "but it will happen," says Ferry County Engineer Keith Muggoch, citing one of the more extreme examples of local dependence on the so-called Craig-Wyden Bill.
The bill -- co-sponsored by Sens. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) in 2000 -- provided a safety net for counties that historically based their economies on federal timber sales. There are more than 700 such counties in 39 states, although much of the focus is in Oregon, Idaho and Washington where the timber industry has shrunk dramatically.
The bill expired last year and its reauthorization is in the political no-man's land surrounding funding for the war in Iraq and a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops.
Democrats in both chambers of Congress last week used their slim majorities to pass supplemental spending bills for Iraq that included a timetable for pulling out troops. President Bush has promised to veto any bill with a "surrender date," as he puts it, and the Democrats don't appear to have enough votes to override a veto.
So that leaves all the other spending measures that Congress stuffed into the Iraq Supplemental, such as a five-year, $4.7-billion re-upping of Craig-Wyden, with an uncertain future. Some counties and school districts have already made budgets for their next fiscal years; others are in the process.
"I just talked to the gal from the local paper. She asked me what would we do if we didn't get the funding. I don't have an answer, It's not like we have a plan in the desk drawer that we can just pull out," says Jon Cantamessa, a Democratic county commissioner in Idaho's Shoshone County.
Cantamessa presides over that rare county in North Idaho whose population is shrinking. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates Shoshone County lost 4.5 percent of its populace between 2001-05.
"This is still a depressed economy as far as the average income of people living here," Cantamessa says. "We were second from the bottom [in the state] last time I looked."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he Census Bureau estimates per-capita income in the historic Silver Valley at $15,934 with unemployment at 16.6 percent. Washington's Pend Oreille and Ferry counties are, like Shoshone, rugged, pretty and sparsely populated areas with comatose timber industries. They also have per capita incomes in the $15,000 range and unemployment running greater than 15 percent.
The straits are dire enough that Shoshone County receives $4.3 million in annual Craig-Wyden funds, Pend Oreille and Ferry counties roughly $1 million each.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he funding comes in two streams; there is the Secure Rural Schools Act and PILT, payment in lieu of taxes. Both recognize that counties with a lot of federal forest land may not have the tax base to fund local government services -- schools, roads, law enforcement -- without help that used to come from a percentage of timber sales.
When it comes to the tanking of the timber industry, people like Cantamessa and Pend Oreille County's Republican commissioner Ken Oliver are quick to mention such hot-buttons as spotted owls or legal challenges from environmentalists, when the fuller picture includes overcutting, skewed Forest Service management strategies and severe pummeling from Canadian softwood imports.
Still, running a county without any sort of real industry is tough.
Pend Oreille County is gaining people (up 8 percent between 2001-05, the Census Bureau reports), but the growth is not an economic cure, Oliver says.
"We're growing, but it's retired folks," Oliver says. "Because industry is down the tubes, we need to rely on tourism and our beautiful scenery, which attracts retirees ... but they don't like things like school levies. They've done all that."
Craig, Idaho's senior senator, intends the bill to be a safety net (the Secure Rural Schools funding will decrease by 10 percent each year for the next five years) and not as welfare.
"He wants to provide a means for a timber-dependent community to transition to a broader economy," Craig aide Sid Smith says, "not to become dependent on the program."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & B & lt;/span & ut transition to what, exactly, is the key. It may appear the recent surge of home sales and condo projects in Kellogg, tied to Silver Mountain Ski Resort, is good news for Shoshone County.
"I would suggest you could make a good argument it's a negative thing," Cantamessa says. "It was dramatic last year; property values doubled across the county."
Wages didn't, he points out, placing residents under a heavier tax burden.
In Pend Oreille County, Oliver says, "My biggest worry is out-taxing the people who have lived here all their lives."
Muggoch, the public works director and road engineer in Ferry County, keeps reviewing unforgiving math: Figure that only 18 percent of the county is privately owned and thus taxable, he says.
"We have about 720 miles of road, and this budget year I have $1.6 million for maintenance. Out of that, snow removal will cost me $850,000 -- or about half," Muggoch says. Half of the remaining half comes from Craig-Wyden funding.
The county budget runs from December 31 to December 31, Muggoch says; no Craig-Wyden funds were budgeted this fiscal year since the bill lapsed.
"My cash carryover for next year will be $130,000 and that won't last me a month -- especially in winter."
So it's likely, he says, the county may have to lay off on maintenance for a month or two to keep money available for snow removal. Already the county uses a cheaper "chip seal" type of asphalt that lasts only half as long as hot mix. "We don't have the initial capital outlay" to afford better asphalt, Muggoch says. As the funding pinch continues, the county removes the asphalt and goes back to gravel roads, which require less maintenance.
"Even if we have dirt or gravel roads, we don't necessarily have the funds to go out and grade them, so they get all washboardy," Muggoch says.
And as Craig-Wyden funding bounces through Congress with vetoes and overrides, it's a rough road indeed in the rural Inland Northwest.