Congress has passed a one-year extension of a program that pays out millions of dollars to communities in Alaska near national forest land, like Petersburg.

The extension of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act of 2000 was approved by the House and Senate this week.

Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski and Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, the ranking Republican and Democratic chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, co-authored the measure. Murkowski said the federal funding program is an annual concern she hears from residents of Southeast.

“So making sure that we at least give certainty to our communities in the Tongass for Secure Rural Schools funding for FY 14. This was critical. This is vital. And I can share the good news that we’ve got funding for this next year. 16 million dollars will be coming to the state again,” Murkowski said.

The extension continues payments for one year at the same level as last year. Petersburg has been getting over a million dollars annually under the program. Most of the money helps pay for school operations. A smaller portion goes to road projects and recreational improvements on national forest land.

Murkowski said the extension buys breathing room to work on a longer term re-authorization of the program. “This is a time of tough budgets and we’re all being very pragmatic about it. So how we move forward with this in finding a permanent solution is going to be important. Know that that is what we are doing. But right now we’ve at least been able to buy an additional year of certainty to our Southeastern communities.”

The Secure Schools extension was part of a broader piece of legislation that sells off reserves of helium held by the federal government. The measure could generate half a billion dollars over the next decade and some of that revenue would be used to pay for the secure schools funding.

It also pays out 50 million dollars to clean up abandoned oil and gas wells in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska and another 50 million dollars for the National Park Service to address a maintenance backlog.
The bill goes next to the president for his signature. The White House this month issued a statement of support for Wyden’s and Murkowski’s legislation on the helium reserve.