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Counties Demand Funding From Congress For Federal Land Reimbursement Program

Photo of a brown wooden sign that reads "Manti-La Sal National Forest, U.S. Department of Agriculture" with some trees in the background.
Kate Groetzinger
Nine percent of the total land in San Juan County is administered by The Forest Service, including 450,549 acres of the Manti-La Sal National Forest.

Public lands are usually a divisive issue in Utah, but state and federal lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are working together to help counties secure annual reimbursements for federally-owned land. 

Officials from nine Utah counties are in Washington this week lobbying for permanent funding for the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) Program. The program provides counties with money to supplant lost local property-tax revenue where the federal government owns large portions of land. Utah counties received over $40 million through the program in fiscal year 2019, which ends Sept. 30. 

Each year, the Department of the Interior uses a formula that includes acreage and population to determine how much each county should be reimbursed and submits that number to Congress. But Congress doesn’t have to fully fund the PILT program. Each year, county officials lobby lawmakers to fund it through the appropriations process.

Legislation filed by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., would change that by making funding for the payments mandatory. The “Permanently Authorizing PILT Act” has support from Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, and Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah. 

In a statement, McAdams said he understands “how vital this money is to county services and would like to eliminate the uncertainty about the funding that they currently face.” 

Map showing land ownership in San Juan County.
Credit Natural Resources Conservation Service Utah/United States Department of Agriculture
Over 70% of the land in San Juan County is administered by federal and tribal agencies. Only 8% of the land in the county is privately held.

PILT funding is especially important in San Juan County, which has over 3 million acres of federally-owned land and receives around $1.5 million from the program each year. With a $13 million operating budget, Commissioner Bruce Adams said San Juan County needs that money for essential services, like law enforcement, search and rescue, infrastructure and solid waste disposal. 

“If we don’t get this money refunded. We have no other option to cut services,” he said. “We can only do so much.”

In the past, San Juan County has used its general fund to supplement fluctuations in PILT funding. But that’s no longer an option, Adams said, because of the fund’s dwindling reserves. The county has spent $4.1 million on legal services in the past four years to lobby against the Bears Ears monument designation and defend itself against a voting rights lawsuit, among other things. 

Adams is one of 15 Utah county officials in Washington this week. He’s joined by others from Beaver, Daggett, Davis, Duchesne, Iron, Piute, Salt Lake, and Washington counties. 

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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