A deal's a deal

February 05, 2007

Ever wonder how Teddy Roosevelt persuaded so many of those flinty Western types to surrender control of millions of acres of land so they could remain untamed indefinitely as national forests?

He cut the local folks a deal.

Nearly a century ago, President Roosevelt promised leaders of rural counties all over the nation, but mostly in the West, that if they agreed to sign away development and taxation rights for the creation of national forests, they would collect a 25 percent share of logging sales from those properties.

But an arrangement that worked well for many years fell apart when environmental objections torpedoed timber sales during the 1990s, and is now all but dysfunctional. Yet the cost of schools and other services that have grown dependent on that influx of federal cash continues to rise, and with so much land off-limits, there's no alternative source of revenue.

Even strapped for funds as it is, the federal government should nonetheless come up with another source of money to make good on this promise. First, because a deal's a deal. Second, because the protected land is some of the most strikingly beautiful in the nation and is worth the cost of preserving. And third, because if rural schools fail for lack of this help, there may be more competition for scarce No Child Left Behind money that would otherwise go to troubled school districts elsewhere.

A temporary financing plan approved by Congress in the late 1990s that provided $385 million last year for rural schools, roads and fire and rescue services expired in December. The Bush administration came up with the terrible idea to replace it with a plan to sell off more than 300,000 acres of forestland and share the proceeds with the rural counties.

Public outrage stoked so much congressional opposition to that plan that it was never taken seriously on Capitol Hill. But the need in the rural counties, which include several nearby in Virginia and West Virginia, remains.

President Bush is expected to include a one-year extension of funds for the expiring program in the new budget he unveils today. But Congress should make a much longer commitment.

National parks are supposed to be forever. Never again should there be a threat of selling parts of them.

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