WASHINGTON – The Bush administration on Friday detailed its proposal to sell more than 300,000 acres of national forests and other public land to help pay for rural schools in 41 states.
The land sales, ranging from less than an acre to more than 1,000 acres, could total more than $1 billion and would be the largest sale of forest land in decades.
Western lawmakers immediately objected, saying the short-term gains would be offset by the permanent loss of public lands. Congress would have to approve the sales, and has rejected similar proposals in recent years.
Forest Service officials say the sales are needed to raise $800 million over the next five years to pay for schools and roads in rural counties hurt by logging cutbacks on federal land. The Bureau of Land Management has said it also plans to sell federal lands to raise an estimated $250 million over five years.
Dave Alberswerth, a public lands expert with The Wilderness Society environmental group called the plan a billion-dollar boondoggle to privatize treasured public lands to pay for "tax cuts to the rich."
"This is not going to be politically acceptable to most people," Alberswerth said.
But Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs forest policy, said the parcels to be sold are isolated, expensive to manage or no longer meet the needs of the national forest system. The administration expects to have to sell only about 200,000 of the 309,000 acres identified Friday to meet the $800 million goal, he said.
"These are not the crown jewels we are talking about," Rey said in an interview. The public can he deficit would be a shortsighted, ill-advised and irresponsible shift in federal land-management policy."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called the plan "a terrible idea based on a misguided sense of priorities."
Not only is the administration proposing to sell off public lands to help finance the president's budget, the move also won't sufficiently fund the rural schools program, which has helped California and other states, Feinstein said. "I will do everything I can to defeat this effort," she said.
Nearly 500 parcels totaling more than 85,000 acres in California are identified for possible sale.
The proposal follows a failed move last year to allow the sale of public lands for mining. Western senators had criticized the idea, as well as a plan by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., to sell off 15 national parks.