U.S. forest sales criticized

WASHINGTON – A Bush administration plan to sell more than 300,000 acres of national forest to help pay for rural schools contains a disproportionate amount of land in the South and Midwest – while primarily benefiting schools in three West Coast states, a new analysis shows.

Nearly 60,000 acres in 13 Southern states and another 50,000 acres in 10 Midwestern states would be sold under the plan, while just 18,000 acres in forest-rich Oregon and Washington would be sold, according to an analysis by the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Southern states received $37 million for rural schools this year under the program the sales are intended to benefit, while the Midwest received $41 million, the analysis shows. Oregon and Washington got five times those amounts – $210 million. Oregon alone received nearly $162 million.

About 80,000 acres in California would be sold; the state received nearly $69 million from the Forest Service this year.

David Carr, public lands director for the nonprofit law center, called the regional disparity unfair, and said the land sale would set a dangerous precedent.

“Selling off America’s natural heritage is not the way to fund government services,” Carr said. “We need to be adding to the public-land base in the South, not holding a bake sale on bits and pieces of our limited national forests for short-term budget needs.”

Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., also questioned the proposal, saying there was no guarantee that money generated by the sales would stay within Missouri.

“We need to see more of the benefit of this proposal than we are now seeing,” Talent told Bush administration officials at a Senate hearing last week.

Under the Bush plan, 21,566 acres in Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest would be sold, with proceeds going to a general fund. The sell-off would be one of the biggest in the country, while Missouri’s share of the school-funding is among the lowest at $2.7 million.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs U.S. forest policy, acknowledged the disparity, but said the law was devised to help those rural counties hurt by logging cutbacks on federal lands. Parcels proposed for sale are isolated, difficult or expensive to manage, or no longer meet Forest Service needs, Rey said.

“They are not evenly distributed” throughout the country, Rey said, but Congress could adjust the funding formula.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he wanted to “keep an open mind” on the land sale idea. But he asked, “Why sell most of the lands in those states that don’t get much money from these payments and very little land in the states that get the most money?”

About 8,000 acres would be sold in New Mexico, which received just $2.3 million under the plan this year.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, one of the chief architects of the rural schools law, called questions raised by Talent and Domenici legitimate, and said they were a key reason he opposes the land sale plan.

“I don’t want to pit your beautiful forest against school stability in Missouri,” Wyden, a Democrat, told Talent last week.

About 10,500 acres in Oregon would be sold under the Bush plan.

Wyden and other Oregon lawmakers say the state receives so much money under the rural schools law because it was hurt the most by federal policies that restricted logging in the 1990s.

Other states “aren’t half-owned by the federal government, and they didn’t see a 95 percent harvest reduction on federal lands,” as happened in Oregon and Washington, said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.

Money from the six-year-old “county payments” law has helped offset sharp declines in timber sales in Oregon and other Western states in the wake of federal forest policy that restricts logging to protect endangered species such as the spotted owl.

The law is set to expire 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.

DeFazio and other Western lawmakers call that unacceptable, saying consequences of a funding drop would be severe.

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