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White House wants to sell federal forestland

2/10/2006

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is proposing to sell up to 307,000 acres of national forestland in 32 states to developers to subsidize schools in timber country.

The U.S. Forest Service hopes to generate $800 million over five years from the sale of isolated parcels that are difficult for foresters to manage, said Mark Rey, undersecretary of Agriculture for natural resources and environment.

More than 25 percent of the acres being considered for sale are in California, with 85,465 acres. Idaho is next with 26,194 acres, followed by Colorado, at 21,572 acres, and Missouri, at 21,566 acres.

The USFS plans to publish maps of the proposed sale areas on its Web site Feb. 28 and take comments on which ones to remove.

"We want everyone to be comfortable with every half-acre that stays on the list," said Rey, who expects they would eventually sell between 150,000 and 200,000 acres of the 193 million acres of Forest Service land.

But the plan has to pass Congress and that may not be easy. It is opposed by a coalition of environmental groups and some key western senators have reservations.

"Public lands are an asset that need to be managed and conserved," said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said it is a "short-sighted, ill-advised and irresponsible shift in federal land-management policy" that would hurt hunters, anglers, campers, foresters, cattlemen, miners and other users of public lands.

One of Bingaman's objections is that the isolated plots cited by Rey are often used in swaps with private landowners or counties to obtain land adjacent to the National Forests. Congress approves those deals on a case-by-case basis.

"Our public lands are a legacy for future generations. We shouldn't liquidate that legacy," said Bingaman.

Rey responded that the Forest Service would still have plenty of parcels to swap and will continue to add land at the rate of about 115,000 acres a year.

If Congress doesn't approve the plan it would have to come up with another revenue source for payments to rural school systems that for 92 years have received a cut from timber sales on federal lands.

With those sales declining, Congress in 2000 authorized payments from the general treasury through the end of this year.

Rey said the administration wants to continue the aid for another five years "to make sure our rural school systems don't fall apart."