The Bush administration has just upped the ante on turning federally-administrated public lands over to corporate interests. Previously, they had just pushed to expand timber, oil and mineral lease rights, citing the energy crunch and need for “energy independence” due to Middle East instability. Now they are talking about an unprecedented direct sell-off–in the name of closing budget deficits themselves created by the Iraq adventure. From Montana’s Great Falls Tribune, May 8:
Forest land sale idea stirs up public
WASHINGTON — Thousands of people sent faxes, e-mails and handwritten letters telling the U.S. Forest Service how they felt about the agency’s proposal to sell up to 300,000 acres of public land to help pay for a popular rural schools program.
By the end of the public comment period May 1, the agency said it had logged 120,000 responses with thousands more still to be counted.
Spokeswoman Heidi Valetkevitch had no tally Monday on public sentiment toward the proposal. She said the responses will be analyzed, and the Forest Service will develop a final list of parcels that could be sold. She said that list could be ready by late May.
The agency wants to auction public land in 35 states to raise $800 million over five years for the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination program. The program was established with bipartisan support in 2000 with the intention of providing money for rural counties hurt by logging cutbacks on federal lands. It has distributed an estimated $2 billion nationwide since then.
The Bush administration’s plan calls for schools to receive $320 million next year, but the figure would drop sharply after that, to $40 million in its final year. That would result in a 55 percent cut over five years compared with current spending, which totaled nearly $400 million this year.
Federal lawmakers from both parties have challenged the land sale, saying short-term gains would be offset by the permanent loss of public lands. They also say profits would fall far short of what’s needed to help rural governments pay for schools and other services.
The program, which has been financed with logging receipts from public lands and the general treasury, is up for renewal this year.
Because of budget concerns, the Bush administration no longer wants taxpayer money used to partially finance the program. Forest Service officials say they considered several options before deciding to ask Congress to approve the sale of isolated acres or parcels the agency finds difficult to manage because of their location or size.
Few in Congress appear to support the proposal. Renewal of the schools program is likely, but lawmakers will have to find another way to fund it if they reject land sales.
A Gannett News Service random sampling of the public comments found many respondents support the school program but oppose the proposal. Some sent form letters while others wrote passionately about their love for a particular forest or the entire 193 million-acre network of forests and grasslands.
For example, Marian McConnell of Troutville, Va., sent a photo of her and husband, Dan, hugging each other on their back deck near Jefferson National Forest. She opposed the sale of forest land.
The McConnells also mailed letters to various officials objecting to any sales.
“We feel very blessed we ended up on this land in the valley (near the forest),” McConnell said.
Chris Fleming, a 13-year-old Boy Scout in Rockwell, N.C., called the plan “an extremely bad idea.”
“The trails can provide a unique experience and a great form of exercise,” wrote Fleming, who lives near the Uwharrie National Forest.
He spent about an hour writing the letter and considering suggestions from his family on what to include. Fleming said he decided to write the letter to earn a Scout communications badge after his troop leader discussed the Forest Service plan. The teenager said he would have written the letter anyway even if there were no badge at stake.
“I don’t want any of the forests destroyed,” Fleming said.
Chuck Hazlett, a South Dakota Lutheran minister who lives next to a parcel on the Forest Service land sale list, said the proposal “is bad policy to sacrifice any public land or resources to give a band-aid fix to a public problem.”
Hazlett said the Forest Service should ask local people for help if maintaining the parcel is a burden. He’d be willing to pay extra money to help rural schools.
The parcel that he lives near, part of the Black Hills National Forest, is a popular place for hiking and horseback riding, said Hazlett. With a recent development boom in his county, Hazlett said such open spaces are slowly disappearing.
He worries that if the parcel went up for auction that “someone with deep pockets is going to buy it and develop it. They’ll be the richer (for it) and we’ll be the poorer.”
But supporters said the plan was reasonable and could benefit local economies.
Gene and Susan Kailing in Sierra Valley, Calif., are among those supporters. The parcels identified for possible sale in his area would make good sites for expensive homes that would generate property taxes for the county, Gene Kailing said.
“I just don’t see a downside, and I see a benefit to the county,” he added.
In their letter, the Kailings said the Forest Service had limited mining, logging and cattle grazing on its lands and hurt the economies of rural communities. And they urged caution on developing several parcels that appear to be part of the Sierra Valley watershed.
“Groundwater recharge areas are very sensitive areas that are easily contaminated by disturbance,” they wrote.
Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, said interest groups such as environmentalists and members of an affected industry most often comment on public land issues. But he said coverage of the land sale proposal by the media and bloggers had stirred the general public.
Federal agencies can be swayed by public comment — but not always, he said.
“The agencies are under no obligation to take a vote based on the majority of public comments, Taylor said. (But) for a lot of agencies, the public comment period allows them to gauge the political dynamics.”
Interesting that this coincides with a new federal crackdown on radical environmentalists.
See our last post on the struggle over public lands.