WASHINGTON – Senators from both parties on Tuesday challenged a Bush administration plan to sell more than 300,000 acres of national forest to help pay for rural schools in 41 states.
Lawmakers said the short-term gains would be offset by the permanent loss of public lands. They also said profits from the proposed sales would fall far short of what's needed to help rural governments pay for schools and other basic services.
"I just don't think we can play Russian roulette with these local communities," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who vowed to "do everything I can" to stop the plan.
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, had a more visceral reaction: "No, heck no," he told Bush administration at a Senate hearing Tuesday.
Wyden and Craig were co-sponsors of a 2000 law that has pumped more than $2 billion into rural counties hurt by logging cutbacks on federal land. The so-called "county payments" law has helped offset sharp declines in timber sales in Oregon and other Western states in the wake of federal forest policy that restricts logging to protect endangered species such as the spotted owl.
The law is set to expire Sept. 30. The land-sale plan would reauthorize the law for five years, but calls for a phased reduction in funding to zero by 2011.
Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs U.S. forest policy, called the proposed cutbacks painful but necessary. The law was never intended to be permanent, he said, but was a way to help rural counties make the transition from dependence on timber receipts to a more broad-based economy.
The lands proposed for sale are all isolated, difficult or expensive to manage, and no longer meet Forest Service needs, Rey said.
"We think this is justified as a one-time transition to help rural schools" for five more years before eliminating the program entirely, Rey told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Rural counties that have diversified their economies and local budgets in recent years should be fine, Rey said, but those that have not "are facing rather dramatic and immediate reductions in their school budgets."
His comments were met with bipartisan derision.
"To propose selling off public lands we will lose forever, in exchange for a program we can pay for by other more prudent means, is simply irresponsible," said Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo.
"The Bush administration wants to eliminate a proven, balanced initiative in favor of a public lands fire sale," added Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., said he was not opposed to the land sale in principle, but was concerned about how much revenue would go to Missouri schools. The Bush plan would sell 21,566 acres in Missouri's Mark Twain National Forest -- the third-largest land sale in the country -- but would result in a likely cut in funding for Missouri schools.
"Our schools need the money," Talent said.