Tiny, remote Alpine County battles loss of funds for schools, roads

WOODFORDS, Calif. (AP) - Tiny, mountainous and remote, California's least populated county is waging a fierce campaign to replenish its lifeblood - the fast-dwindling money for schools and roads that for more than 90 years has come from logging national forests.

The people of Alpine County - all 1,200 of them - are scattered thinly across the Sierra Nevada in a region of cliffs, chasms and peaks that resembles Switzerland more than the Wild West. It is snowbound half the year - one of the school buses is a Chevrolet Suburban with studded snow tires - and it has some of the steepest stretches of public highway in California. The county seat is Markleeville, pop. 165.

This very small community is at the center of a very large national debate over the so-called ''timber receipts'' law, which has been on the federal books since 1908. It provides that 25 percent of the proceeds from forest service timber sales and grazing fees be divided among counties that have national forests within their environs.

Alpine County, where more than nine of every 10 acres is owned by the government, has pieces of the Toiyabe, Stanislaus and El Dorado national forests. But as timber harvesting has declined throughout the Sierra, the receipts have dropped - dramatically. Now, schools and other public agencies that depend on that money are looking to the federal government for a more reliable source of cash.

In 1987, the 39 California counties entitled to receive timber receipts got a total of about $53 million, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Last year, they got just $30 million.

Alpine County's share plunged from $835,000 to about $330,000, and much of that went to keep up the roads.

''Three or four years ago, it dropped from about $500,000 to $120,000 for schools, and I watched a quarter of my budget disappear,'' said James Parsons, superintendent of the Alpine County Unified School District, which has a $2 million annual budget. ''It was catastrophic.''

The entire county has about 200 school-age children. There is no high school, so most of the roughly 45 high school-age students go ''down the hill'' to Nevada for class, and a few attend school in nearby Calaveras County. The rest are educated at small elementaries in Alpine County, including two one-room schoolhouses. One of these is in the basement of a condominium complex at the Kirkwood ski resort; the other is in isolated Bear Valley, which often has 10-foot-high snow drifts.

In fact, the district is so small that some officials wonder whether it is too tiny to be functional.

''I'll go to these meetings, and people will ask me, 'Why do you exist, anyway?' Well, we exist because this is where the kids are. That's why we're here,'' Parsons said.

Because of the district's size, any fluctuations in the timber receipts have a disproportionate impact. It recently laid off its classroom aides and two of 15 teachers. The others' salaries were frozen, and two of the three bus drivers were let go.

''The public has told us in very clear terms that they would like to see more emphasis placed on recreation and fish and wildlife and less emphasis on intensive timber production,'' said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes.

''In the old days, timber harvesting was primarily clear-cutting old growth. These days, it is generally thinning out stands of smaller diameter trees. So there is less timber coming off each acre. The bottom line is that in the old days the driving force was the production of boards. Now, it is the restoration of the ecosystem,'' Mathes added.

The county's public works department finds itself in similar straits.

''I'm deficit-spending $265,000 this year alone,'' said public works director Leonard Turnbeaugh. He provided a litany of road woes - too little maintenance and repair, no new construction and inadequate striping. ''I'm down to the point where there are no centerlines left,'' Turnbeaugh said.

The solution, county officials say, is to find a stable revenue source.

The Clinton administration has proposed completely replacing the timber receipts with a stream of federal tax dollars. Other proposals before Congress would retain a linkage to timber, but assure a minimum level of federal funding pegged to county's highest three-year average. The various plans have some bipartisan support, so it is likely a compromise will emerge from Congress.

But some within the forestry industry believe that severing the tie to timber could erode forest harvesting over time, loosening the industry's leverage over local communities and disturbing rural culture.

'''Decoupling' these county payments is bad for taxpayers, and it rips the socioeconomic fabric holding these rural communities together,'' said Chris Nance of the California Forestry Association.

But in Alpine County, where schools are community centers and roads are the ties that bind residents together, people are weary of the fight for money.

''There's just not much money here anyway, and it affects everything. It affects everybody with children or grandchildren,'' said Bob Rudden, owner of the Markleeville General Store.


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