National forest lands could go up for sale

Protests greet Bush administration proposal to offset states' losses from logging revenue


ROANOKE, Va. -- Along a rocky path of the Appalachian Trail, Sherman Bamford pointed to a mist-shrouded mountainside in the Thomas Jefferson National Forest, where 121 acres could soon be up for public auction.

The land is on a list of about 300,000 acres of national forest the Bush administration has proposed selling to help fund the operation of rural schools and offset cuts in federal aid.

Forest Service officials said yesterday that they do not expect to sell more than about 175,000 acres in order to reach their goal of raising $800 million. But auctioning any of the land would reverse more than a century of federal policy and law barring such sales of national forests.

Bamford and other critics contend that selling the public lands would not only be a betrayal but could set a dangerous precedent of liquidating federal property to fund other struggling programs, such as Medicare, as the government wrestles with an outsized budget deficit.

"These public lands were meant to be held in long-term trust for the future generations," said Bamford, coordinator of an advocacy group called Virginia Forest Watch. "If this land is sold, we'll never get it back, and it will become a private development instead of a place where the public can picnic, hike, camp and fish."

Forest Service officials say the parcels targeted for possible sale in 35 states are remote, less-important tracts and the land represents a fraction of 1 percent of the 193 million acres of national forests.

"These parcels are isolated and inefficient to manage," said Heidi Valetkevitch, spokeswoman for the Forest Service. She said that public comment is influencing which land remains on the auction list and that criticism about some choices has resulted in a few being removed.

Cash from the sales would be distributed over the next five years to local governments that have been hurt by declining revenues from timber sales on federal lands. State and local governments since 1908 have received a cut from these sales, but logging has dropped since the 1980s in part because of more restrictive Forest Service policies and environmental lawsuits, federal officials said.

Payments to states fell from $1.5 billion in 1989 to $557 million in 1998. Congress in 2000 tried to dampen this blow by approving an additional $1.9 billion over five years, but that supplement is scheduled to end in September.

Most of the land on the auction list is in western states such as California, Idaho and Colorado, and they would receive much of the money from the land sales, based on how much timber is sold in their national forests.

But 5,721 acres are in Virginia, and 4,827 are in West Virginia. Maryland has no national forests.

The administration's plan would need congressional approval by September to become part of the 2007 federal budget. But several lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, have voiced objections.

The House Appropriations Interior and Environment subcommittee endorsed a 2007 spending bill yesterday that does not include selling the forest service land.

Opponents include Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who chairs the House agriculture committee that oversees the U.S. Forest Service budget.

"The idea of selling capital assets to pay for short-term needs sets a bad precedent," Goodlatte wrote in an opinion article published in the Roanoke Times. "As they say in rural America, `You don't sell your seed corn for spending money.'"

Despite the opposition, the proposal is still alive. It could return later if western congressmen can't find another funding source for their schools, according to the National Wildlife Federation, an advocacy group.

Sean McMahon, director of national land stewardship campaigns for the group, said that whether the government sells 175,000 or 300,000 acres, it would still betray the public's interest.

"The people who hunt and fish and camp on these lands will really reject this as an attempt to sell off the places where they love to recreate and take their children and families to enjoy the outdoors," McMahon said.

Four former chiefs of the U.S. Forest Service co-wrote a letter to Congress on March 13 that denounced the idea. In an interview, one of the authors, Michael Dombeck, director of the Forest Service from 1997 to 2001, criticized the administration for this and other moves that he said show a pattern of stripping protections from public lands.

Bush repealed federal protection for almost 60 million acres of national forests that had been off-limits to road construction, logging and mining under a "roadless rule" created at the end of the Clinton administration.

The number of permits to drill for gas and oil on federal lands has more than tripled under the Bush administration, according to federal data.

Meanwhile, tax cuts and the soaring costs of wars have created pressure for government agencies to slash programs and sell land, Dombeck said.

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