Public acres for sale

President Bush revives proposal to sell desert and forest land

  • Gov't land for sale

    Bagley, The Salt Lake Tribune
  • Last year, the Forest Service sold 605 acres nationwide. Under the president's new proposal, up to 200,000 acres could be sold over the next five years.

    Source: U.S. Forest Service

Thousands of acres of public land may soon be up for grabs if two proposals in President Bush’s 2007 budget make it through Congress. Released Feb. 6, the budget directs the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to generate more than $1 billion by selling off parcels of land.

Under the proposals, the Forest Service would put as many as 300,000 acres in 32 states on the block, a significant shift in policy for an agency that currently has limited authority to peddle its land. The BLM, which already has broad land-sale authority, could see its annual sales increase sevenfold by 2011.

The proposals come little more than two months after a high-profile move by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., to sell off millions of acres of public land under the 1872 Mining Act. That effort was beaten back by bipartisan opposition from lawmakers and conservation and outdoor groups (HCN, 12/26/05: Bipartisan uprising sinks public-lands selloff).

Of the two proposals, the Forest Service’s has drawn the most attention. It would generate $800 million to fund the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, which over the past five years has paid out about $2 billion for schools and other services in counties strapped by the decline in federal timber sales. The act expires this September; both Republicans and Democrats say its funding needs to be extended.

However, Democrats have blasted the Forest Service proposal, and increasingly, Republicans are voicing opposition. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., recently called the plan "dead in the water," a comment echoed by Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., chair of the Interior Appropriations subcommittee, which may kill the proposal.

Yet even as lawmakers from both parties sponsor legislation to fund the schools act through a different source, environmental groups remain concerned. They say the administration’s proposal backs lawmakers and the public into a corner.

"They’re forcing people into this untenable situation, where in order to protect public lands, they have to say ‘no’ to schoolchildren," says Janine Blaeloch, executive director of the nonprofit Western Lands Project. "It diverts attention from their real agenda, which is privatizing public land."

Prime parcels on the block

Forest Service officials say the parcels in question are expensive to manage, lack essential habitat, cultural resources or recreational benefits, and are separated from the main forest lands. The BLM has yet to release specific acreages to be sold.

Opponents say many acres on the Forest Service’s list shouldn’t be there. One example, in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, is the Willoughby 40, where a popular nature trail winds through ponderosa pines at the foot of the Sapphire Mountains. Local schools use the property — with its picnic area, parking and restroom — for field trips. Yet it lies outside the main national forest boundary, so it’s been tagged for sale. Also on the list, environmental groups say, are remote river canyons, roadless areas, hunting and fishing lands, and prime wildlife habitat.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey says such parcels could ultimately be removed from consideration following the 30 day-public comment period: "I want everyone to be comfortable with every half-acre that stays on the list." Rey says he expects only up to 200,000 acres will need to be sold to meet the funding goal.

But there is no way to field-check the proposed 300,000 acres in 30 days, environmental groups say. The public comment deadline in late March will be long past when the snow has melted and people can reach many higher elevation parcels, says Stephanie Tidwell of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

Sold once, gone forever

Opponents concede that some of these Forest Service lands are a hassle to manage, but argue that if the agency is getting rid of them, it should at least get some lands in return. The lands for sale are some of the agency’s best "trade bait," they say, and auctioning them off could undermine the Forest Service’s ability to swap for lands that would be more valuable in the long term.

As for the BLM proposal, the problem is not only the sale, but also where the money will go. Seventy percent of the BLM’s general land-sale proceeds would be funneled away from land acquisition, where they're currently used, and into the general treasury. "It’s public-land liquidation for deficit reduction," says David Alberswerth, senior policy advisor for The Wilderness Society.

The BLM proposal does not target money raised by land sales around Las Vegas. Since 1998, those sales have raised $2.75 billion for land acquisition and park and trail construction in southern Nevada. The Bush administration tried, unsuccessfully, to grab 70 percent of that money for the treasury in last year’s budget proposal (HCN, 3/21/05: Nevada desert to be sold for debt relief).

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer thinks that both of this year’s proposals — the Forest Service’s and the BLM’s — are headed for the political graveyard. "If we sold off a piece of land every time we needed to raise money, we wouldn’t have any public land left," he says. "Maybe just the parking lot in front of the Capitol building."

The author is an HCN intern.

For More Information has more information. The public comment deadline is March 30.

Mar 07, 2006 11:24 AM

Wyoming has a sole U.S. Representative; Barbara Cubin. Whenever a publiic land grab comes up, she is around. When it blows up in her face she spins some weak denials and excuses. Somehow she has pulled the wool over the Wyoming voter's eyes for 13 yrs. I would sure like to see the Bush acolytes like Cubin and Pombo booted out in the coming election. And it might make my public lands a little safer. 

Mar 09, 2006 11:54 AM

The following came in via our editorial email box. Paolo Bacigalupi, Online Editor

Public Acres for Sale I am always disappointed when your reporters fail to reflect balance and refuse to allow readers to draw their own conclusions. Your recent story on President Bush¹s 2007 budget proposal to sell surplus parcels of federal land fails to consider the positive impacts of selling surplus federal land such as that occurring under the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act (SNPLMA) of 1998 and the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act (FLTFA) of 2000.

For instance, you mention BLM has raised $2.75 billion for park and
trail construction in southern Nevada. However, you fail to mention
proceeds have also been used to acquire thousands of acres of
environmentally sensitive land throughout Nevada, something considered
impossible prior to passage of the respective acts. There are many
other direct and indirect impacts that have been derived from public
land sale proceeds including development and implementation of habitat
management plans, funding for major conservation initiatives and
additional protection for Lake Tahoe.

Regardless of where sale proceeds are directed Congress has
consistently required agencies to establish a land sale program based
upon approved federal land use plans that undergo extensive public
involvement and development of an Environmental Impact Statement and
Record of Decision supporting recommendations to dispose of land.
Specific criteria, such as a determination that land is difficult and
uneconomic to manage, not suitable for management by another federal
agency, or critical to meet other important public objectives such as
expansion of communities and economic development is used to identify
disposal parcels. Land containing significant resource values, or
environmentally sensitive land, is identified for retention and
management by the appropriate agency.

Critics such as Janine Blaeloch have consistently condemned agencies
for federal land exchanges (also authorized by law) while others
suggest auctioning land off could undermine the ability of the Forest
Service and other agencies to swap for lands that would be more
valuable in the long term. Under the SNPLMA and FLTFA agencies are
able to sell surplus federal parcels, identified in approved land use
plans, using proceeds to acquire environmentally sensitive land without
controversial land exchanges. We have done this successfully in Nevada
for many years with broad public support including support in rural
Nevada where the thought of adding additional federal land was once
considered unthinkable.

Finally, conserving and protecting land across the country while
protecting wildlife habitat, working landscapes, recreation areas, open
spaces, and historic sites will only occur when private parties and
public agencies work together using a dual purpose mission of promoting
economic development and environmental protection. A federal land sale
program based upon all the above can achieve those goals.

Mike Ford