After a law enforcement career, followed by eight years as an elected county leader, Paul Pearce’s life is taking yet another turn.
Earlier this month, he began duties as president of the National Forest Counties & Schools Coalition. It is an organization founded to secure federal funding for rural areas.
Before that, Pearce, 57, served on the Skamania County Commission after retiring from a 28-year law enforcement career with the Camas Police Department.
During his time as county commissioner, he learned how dependent the area is on federal forest funds and joined the NFCSC as a board member.
“Our goal is to reestablish active management of the national forests and advocate for bridge funding to schools and counties until it can be replaced,” said Pearce.
Since 1911, states with National Forest lands received funding from the federal government to offset the loss from property tax revenue. However, this was substantially reduced due to legislation which limited logging. In 2000, the Secure Rural Schools Act was established as a way to subsidize payments to counties, taking into consideration historic payments before the decline.
However, that funding ended at the end of 2012. According to Pearce, due to the presence of other industry not all counties with forest land need the payments. But Skamania County, which is predominately rural, relies on it heavily.
“Our last budget was approximately $10 million, and the (SRSA) payment was $1.6 million,” he said. “That’s a big chunk.”
Pearce joined the NFCSC board in 2006 as its Washington representative, and he spent 20 weeks in Washington, D.C. between 2006 and 2008, directly advocating for the reauthorization of the Rural Schools Act. After two such extensions, it ended in December.
“There will be no more payments,” he said. “We’re getting warmed up again and hoping to get multi-year funding. We can’t go on like this.”
As far as the forest management piece goes, Pearce said the coalition advocates for the health of the forest by treating trees to better withstand disease and improve fire resiliency. “Right now it’s not managed, and we need active management to make it healthy. Unfortunately, the federal government is short on money for staff or planning in those areas. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest is 1.2 million acres and it‘s not a natural forest. Most trees are Douglas firs, which we planted and are not natural to the region.”
After he lost his reelection bid for Skamania County commissioner in the primary last year, Pearce was asked by the NFCSC board to be president.
“I want to find a permanent way to stabilize funding for counties and schools,” he said. “There are 720 counties and 4,400 school districts eligible for this funding and I want to represent all of them.”
Jim French, recently retired president of the organization, said Pearce is an ideal fit for the job.
“We were fortunate to have Paul come on,” he said. “He is on of the hardest working, dedicated fellows I’ve had the pleasure of working with. He is very tenacious, understanding and passionate. Paul is dedicated to what is good for forests and rural America. I’m sure with the current political climate, it’s a tough road to hoe, but he’ll do a wonderful job.”