Protect national forests from sell-off

April 19, 2006|By DAVID MUHLY

Maryland residents again have the chance to protect their national forests under the latest proposal by the Bush administration to sell public land to pay for funding for rural schools. This would include over 10,000 acres in the nearby Monongahela and George Washington and Jefferson national forests and an additional 21,000 acres elsewhere in the Appalachian region.

We have a finite amount of public land available for habitat protection, hunting, fishing, hiking and other recreation, especially for Eastern metropolitan areas such as Baltimore. Less and less is available for purchase, and because of the encroachment of development, we're unlikely to add much more. And once it's gone, it's gone.

The public has until May 1 to comment on President Bush's proposal as part of his budget request to Congress that the Secure Rural Schools Act be funded for only an additional five years by the sale of up to 300,000 acres of national forest land nationwide. These ostensibly would be parcels isolated from contiguous forest, difficult to manage or already designated as available for trade in national forest plans.

Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark E. Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist for 20 years, says these sales represent only a small part of the entire Forest Service's 193 million acres. True, and my fingernails are just a small percentage of my body. But I'd hate for someone to yank them out.

We're told these lands are small parcels that are disconnected from other Forest Service lands, are not of "high quality" or are "difficult to manage." One parcel in Virginia, however, is 920 acres, and many contain significant old-growth forests.

Elsewhere, the tracts identified for sale include Wild and Scenic River "special areas" in the Uwharrie National Forest in North Carolina, areas of "high scenic integrity" in Virginia, lakefront property in Mississippi and trailhead land in the West.

In an administration that sees little value in public lands other than their utility to industry, this proposal would seem to be just one more step in privatizing the public trust by turning national forest over to loggers or developers. Whether large or small, these lands are all a part of America's natural heritage, and they should be preserved as a legacy for our children and grandchildren.

Forest Service Chief Dale N. Bosworth repeatedly has identified as one of the four main threats to forest health in this country "the loss of open space." Yet this proposal would eliminate more. From the Forest Service's Web site:

"More than 21.8 million acres of open space were lost to development between 1982 and 1997, about 4,000 acres per day, 3 acres a minute. Of this loss, close to 10.3 million acres are in forestland. It continues today."

By that calculation, this proposal would add 75 days' worth of loss. Adding the 500,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands on the block would mean another 125 days. That's almost seven months worth of open space loss, and most of this is forestland.

Republican and Democratic legislators have expressed opposition to the proposal and are examining alternative funding mechanisms for the program. Forest Service officials are generally, though quietly, opposed to the project.

Equitable? North Carolina could lose about 10,000 acres and see $1 million in return while Oregon would get $162.8 million for a similar number of acres.

Funding for rural schools should come from the Treasury rather than providing billions of dollars in tax cuts to the upper 1 percent of wealthiest Americans or billions more in subsidies to the oil industry.

Budget obligations should be met with secure funding mechanisms rather than by cannibalizing our public trust for this and future generations to support shortsighted fiscal irresponsibility.

David Muhly is regional representative of Sierra Club-Appalachian Region. His e-mail is

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