The ongoing sequester means rural communities nationwide must repay $17.9 million, but a group of bipartisan lawmakers is fighting that mandate.
Federal officials say any state that received U.S. Forest Service funding, $15.6 million of which comes from the Secure Rural Schools Act, must repay it. But 30 members of Congress signed a letter asking for the request to be halted.
"For the administration to announce three months after the disbursement of these payments that they are subject to the sequester ... appears to be an obvious attempt by President Obama's administration to make the sequester as painful as possible," according to the letter.
Counties receive the money as part of the Secure Rural Schools legislation. Rural communities in national forest areas are eligible for the funds to compensate for revenue lost because of restrictions on harvesting timber. The U.S. Department of Agriculture distributed $323 million to 41 states in January, and many rural schools have come to depend on those funds.
Larry Chambers, media relations officer for the U.S. Forest Service, said the sequestration mandates that the Forest Service reduce all county payments.
"We understand the hardship that this causes the communities that receive these funds—these are the places where Forest Service employees live, work, and send their kids to school," he said. "The Forest Service is committed to working with states and communities to inform them of potential options to help minimize the impact of these reductions."
States have received letters detailing the sequestered amounts and their options. For example, states can have their future allocations reduced, or they can receive a collection bill for funds they already received.
U.S. Representative Glenn 'GT' Thompson, R-Penn., chairs the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy and Forestry. He said in a statement the administration is stealing from rural America and using the guise of sequestration as the rationale for "questionable, if not unlawful, actions."
The situation is sparking a harsh backlash in western states such as Oregon, which receives a substantial amount in Secure Rural Schools funds. Its already financially distressed counties are being asked to return $3.6 million, and local leaders have said they might have to lay off teachers, close jails and libraries, and defer road repairs, according to a story in The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.