The Bush administration is proposing the sale of about 200,000 acres of National Forest in order to fund school and public services in rural parts of the country. The plan is stirring up the debate about whether rural communities should be able to rely on federal land for subsidies. Rachel Gotbaum reports.
GELLERMAN: Playing out in rural America is a variation on the old philosophical saw: If a tree falls in a forest, and communities care what happens to it, will the Bush administration hear their sounds of concern? Living on Earth’s Rachel Gotbaum has this story about a controversy over selling national forest to fund local programs.
GOTBAUM: As part of the president’s budget package, the administration is seeking permission from Congress to sell off about 200,000 acres of national forest. The money from the sale would be used to maintain schools, build county roads and other public services in rural parts of the country. In 2000, Congress passed a law guaranteeing payment to these communities, but the law is set to expire later this year.
Mark Rey is undersecretary of agriculture. He says when the law was first created, there was a budget surplus, but now the federal budget is tight so selling Forest Service land makes sense to help fund rural counties.
REY: Isolated parcels have come into the national forest ownership almost as a result of an accident of history. They’re not attached to or in any way part of the national forest system, and have been viewed in our individual national forest plans as not of great environmental value; very expensive to manage, because they are isolated from the balance of the national forest system; and not meeting national forest system needs.
GOTBAUM: Since 1908, communities surrounded by national forest have been able to share in any revenue the land produced. In most cases, the money came from timber sales. But in the late 1990s, logging on federal land was restricted to protect the spotted owl and other endangered species, and the land no longer generated significant income for the neighboring towns.
That’s when the law guaranteeing government funding for rural communities was created. More than half the federal money goes to schools and roads in Oregon. That’s because Oregon is where most of the logging took place.
STAHL: Here we have the sign: “Forest Research. Experimental Area. U.S. Forest Service.” Climb over the gate.
GOTBAUM: On a recent afternoon, Andy Stahl takes a tour of one of the Forest Service parcels that may go up for sale. This piece of land, in western Oregon, is about 140 acres. It borders a state wildlife refuge and also some private farmland. Years ago, the land was owned by the military, and then ended up under Forest Service domain.
STAHL: This is the kind of place where voles and squirrels and wood rats find home. There’s lots of wet areas. So, you have a great place for raptors to hunt. And that’s what this place is known for, it’s known for its owls.
GOTBAUM: Stahl heads up a group called Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. He says putting public land up for sale to fund rural communities is a bad idea.
STAHL: Once you start opening the door to selling national forest, where do you draw the line? All that will be valued is these lands’ real estate development potential. And that’s not what these lands were originally protected for. These lands were protected for the American people and for the environment.
GOTBAUM: By selling parcels like these, the Bush administration hopes to raise about 800 million dollars for schools and rural services over the next five years. Then, the administration hopes to phase out its commitment to the 700 counties nationwide that rely on this money. But school district officials want the funding to continue indefinitely, and most say they don’t want their schools’ future to be tied to the sale of public land.
John Marshall is with the Oregon School Boards Association.
MARSHALL: It’s like we’re going to sell these lands one time, we’re going to pay you the money over five years, and the, oh, by the way, you lose the Act, you lose the ongoing revenue, and you’ve you lost the land. So, we think it’s a three-time loss.
GOTBAUM: The notion of selling public land is not a popular idea in Congress either, and virtually no lawmakers would go on record supporting Bush’s proposal. But Greg Walden, a Republican Congressman from Oregon, says the federal government must consider all of its options, and those may include selling some Forest Service land.
WALDEN: I haven’t had a chance to look property by property, but I can tell you one of ‘em is a tiny little piece of property in the middle of the parking lot of a grocery store in a town 20 miles from where I live. Literally, in the middle of the parking lot. I would rethink a.) the Forest Service should have that, and b.) why wouldn’t we dispose of it? And, in the meantime, we’re acquiring 84,000 acres on average a year adding to the forest system.
GOTBAUM: The public has until the end of March to comment on the parcels the Forest Service is proposing to sell. In the meantime, lawmakers in Washington are expected to come up with their own plan to fund rural schools and county services that may or may not include the sale of public land. For Living on Earth, I’m Rachel Gotbaum.
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