Bush seeks privatization of national forests

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 โ€” 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 โ€” 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.

See also WW4 REPORT #s 62, 48, 42

  1. More details
    From Knight-Ridder, Feb. 10:

    Bush Administration Moves to Sell National Forest Land

    WASHINGTON – The Bush administration will unveil a proposal Friday to sell up to 200,000 acres of national forest land in “isolated parcels” ranging from a quarter of an acre to 200 acres, much of it in California.

    The sale is part of a National Forest Service plan to raise $800 million over the next five years to pay for rural schools in 41 states, offsetting shrinking revenues from sale of timber from national forests. The Bureau of Land Management also plans to sell federal lands to raise an estimated $182 million over five years.

    Environmentalists charge that the short-term gain would be more than offset by the loss of public land. Congress would have to approve the land sales, but it has rejected similar recent proposals.

    “I am outraged, and I don’t think the public is going to stand for it for one minute,” said Wilderness Society policy analyst Mike Anderson. “It’s a scheme to raise money at the expense of the national forests, the wildlife, recreation and all the other values that Americans hold dear. It’s the ultimate threat to the national forest.”

    Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, said the proposed land sales make sense.

    “Private property will end up in the possession of those who value it the most,” Taylor said. “That is an iron law of economics.”

    Details about what plots of land would be put up for sale are expected to be revealed at a noon press conference by Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist. The Forest Service owns 193 million acres of land and plans to sell about 175,000 to 200,000 acres, according to Forest Service spokeswoman Heidi Valetkevitch.

    “They could be theoretically from every national forest,” Valetkevitch said. “California has a lot on the list, I understand.”

    The lands in question aren’t environmentally sensitive wilderness or protected scenic areas, Valetkevitch said. “It could be something that’s in a neighborhood that people don’t even know is forest land,” she said.

    Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., attacked the plan as “crazy,” saying: “Here the administration wants to pass more tax cuts for the rich, and to pay the bill, they want to sell off public land – our nation’s natural heritage.”

    The Forest Service owns 20 percent of California, including much of the Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe, Big Sur and dense forests along the Oregon border. The Bureau of Land Management owns 15 percent of the Golden State.

    Rural schools get 25 percent of federal forest timber sale proceeds, but those revenues have fallen, so the idea is to sell forest land to make up for that, Valetkevitch said.

    Anderson of the Wilderness Society argued that money for rural schools could come from many sources and that the land sales are being proposed “so the budget deficit doesn’t get worse.” He noted that if forests are sold, future federal timber sales likely would yield even less money for rural schools.

    The president’s new fiscal 2007 federal budget calls for the bureau to raise $1 million in 2007 land sales, $28 million in 2008, $40 million in 2009, $42 million in 2010 and $71 million in 2011.

    Dave Alberswerth, a Wilderness Society senior policy adviser, said that would be “way more than they have been selling in recent years.” From 2000 to 2004, the bureau sold 13,160 acres for an average price of $320 an acre, he said. At that rate, the government would have to sell more than half a million acres to garner $182 million.