Bush again proposes selling national forest land
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON ” For the second year in a row, the Bush administration has proposed selling off as much as 300,000 acres of national forests and other public land to help pay for rural schools and roads.
And for the second year, Western lawmakers and environmentalists blasted the plan, saying short-term gains would be offset by the permanent loss of the land.
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., the new chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee that oversees environmental spending, pronounced the plan dead on arrival.
“They are just not going to do this. It’s not going to happen,” Dicks said Monday.
“We’re going to find a way to fund the (rural) schools program without selling even one acre of public land,” added Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called the plan a “betrayal,” and said he would “work around the clock … to convince Congress to act honorably and fulfill the federal obligation to our rural counties.”
Western lawmakers also were concerned about Bush’s plan to cut the Forest Service budget by more than $100 million. The figure represents a 7 percent drop in expected spending for the current budget year.
“Those are major cuts” that are likely to be reversed by the Democratic-controlled Congress, Dicks said.
The proposed land sale and Forest Service cuts took some of the shine off another plan that Dicks and other Northwest lawmakers hailed: a proposed a $230 million increase for the National Park Service. The 14 percent increase would be the agency’s largest, in preparation for the park system’s 100th birthday in 2016.
The boost will help the Park Service recover from several years of constrained budgets, during which only a portion of the ranger, maintenance and interpretative staff who left the agency were replaced, Dicks said.
“Years of tight budgets have diminished the work force within the Park Service and consequently diminished the visitor experience at many of our parks,” he said, adding that if enacted, the proposed budget would restore money for dozens of jobs left vacant at Olympic and Mount Rainier national parks in Washington state, and other parks around the country.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., called the budget plan a big disappointment. He was especially unhappy at a plan to phase out the rural schools program, which has pumped more than $2 billion into Oregon and other rural states hurt by logging cutbacks on federal land.
The Bush plan would reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act as of October, but would drop funding to about $400 million over a four-year period ” a 50 percent cut over a proposal made last year. That plan was never enacted and the law expired.
Western lawmakers have been trying to reauthorize the law, but have been frustrated by budget constraints and concerns that Oregon gets too much money under the current formula.
“We need a full-court press from the White House. What we got was halfhearted and with the half the funding we need,” DeFazio said.
Unlike many lawmakers from both parties, DeFazio said he was willing to consider the land-sale plan, if it could be fine-tuned to include land that truly is isolated or unnecessary for public use.
But even if some land sales are approved ” an unlikely scenario given the swift rejection by Congress last year ” the plan would not generate enough money in the short term to pay for the schools program, DeFazio said.
Bob Douglas, president of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition, said rural schools across the country are facing the real possibility of layoffs if money for the program is not found, and soon.
“We are truly facing an emergency of catastrophic proportions in our 800 forest counties and 4,400 forest county school districts,” he said, adding that local governments could start sending out pink slips to as many 16,000 teachers and county employees in mid-March.
“In our most rural counties, these layoffs will have a devastating effect on the quality of our schools and the level of county services. Some local school districts will be forced to declare bankruptcy,” Douglas said.
Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs U.S. forest policy, said he understands the frustration of local officials, but said the administration’s hands were tied by Congress, which rejected the land sale proposal but failed to replace it with another revenue source.
The president’s budget leaves open the possibility that schools money could be approved for the current budget year in an emergency spending bill that Congress is expected to take up in the next few months.
Rey said the land sale plan makes a few changes from last year. It includes an advisory commission that would determine if individual parcels are worth selling, and splits revenue from the sales between the rural schools program and conservation programs run by the Forest Service. That last element was intended to address criticism that money from the land sales would not always benefit states where the land was sold.
“We’ve made some significant changes in response to what we heard last year,” Rey said. “And … we are willing to look for other offsets if the land sale proves to be not acceptable. The fact is we’re a year later and nobody has come up with a better alternative.”
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