Forestland sale criticized

WASHINGTON – U.S. 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 officials at a Senate hearing on 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 Western states in the wake of federal forest policy that restricts logging to protect endangered species such as the spotted owl.

The law expires 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 to a more broad-based economy.

The lands proposed for sale are all isolated, difficult or expensive to manage, or no longer meet Forest Service needs, Rey said.

The proposal, which was published Tuesday in the Federal Register, would give states, counties and land trusts the first chance to buy Forest Service land offered for sale, Rey said. Remaining parcels would then be sold to the highest bidder.

“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.

Asked what rural counties should expect, Rey said counties that have diversified their economies and budgets in recent years should be fine.

Those that have not “are facing rather dramatic and immediate reductions in their school budgets,” he added.

Rey’s comments met with bipartisan derision.

“County payments are an extremely important funding source for counties with forestland inside their boundaries,” said Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo. “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.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said the administration “wants to eliminate a proven, balanced initiative in favor of a public lands fire sale. Washington’s rural communities need our support and want the county payments program extended.”

Rey acknowledged the disparity, but said funding formulas could be adjusted as Congress sees fit. Western states get the lion’s share of the money under the current program.

In Snohomish County

President Bush’s proposal that the U.S. Forest Service sell 300,000 acres of public land around the country includes land on the upper Sultan River.

The 1,360-acre Sultan River gorge is too isolated and rugged to be developed, but it could be logged.

The parcel is next door to the reservoir that is the source of most of Snohomish County’s drinking water, and just around the bend from Snohomish County PUD’s Jackson Hydroelectric Project.

The Forest Service in 2000 tried to sell the 1,360-acre parcel to the city of Everett for $15.5 million. Everett wants the land but is not willing to pay $15 million for timber that can only be logged with a helicopter, said Tom Thetford, Everett’s utilities director.

Still, if the land has to be sold, the city would like to get it because it is so near the system of dams, tunnels, pumps and reservoirs that supplies 80 percent of Snohomish County’s drinking water and generates up to 8 percent of the PUD’s electricity.

The PUD is studying Bush’s proposal, said Neil Neroutsos, a PUD spokesman.

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