Selling federal forest land to subsidize rural schools and road projects is a bad idea for many reasons. But a proposal to do just that, incorporated into the Bush administration's 2007 budget, has one powerful virtue: It has focused welcome public attention on a century-old welfare program that has yet to achieve its goals.
Bush and his Department of Agriculture, which runs the U.S. Forest Service, have proposed extending a law that gives money to logging-dependent counties to compensate them for revenue losses caused by declining timber harvests. That law was signed by President Clinton in 2000 after protections for the northern spotted owl and other endangered species reduced logging in the Pacific Northwest, causing rural revenues to tumble.
But thanks to such fiscal irritants as the war in Iraq, tax cuts and a reluctance to veto even the most outlandish congressional spending proposals, the administration can't afford to keep the rural subsidy afloat. Rather than find offsetting savings elsewhere, or let the program expire as lawmakers apparently intended six years ago, the president and Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey want to prolong it another five years and sell more than 300,000 acres of national forest land to pay the $800 million bill.
Criticism of the proposal has been amusingly ecumenical. Environmental groups denounced the sell-off as a betrayal of the nation's conservation principles; they were joined in righteous indignation by conservative Western lawmakers, who typically show concern for the public lands in their states by aiding efforts to strip-mine, clear-cut and subdivide them.
Selling assets to pay ongoing expenses is fiscally imprudent, like emptying your 401(k) to cover your phone bill. But there's a bigger issue involved in the forest-sale proposal, and it goes to the heart of the evolving relationship between Americans and the remarkable landscape they inhabit. In a sense, the program in question awkwardly straddles a divide between the nation's rough-and-tumble past, when natural resources existed solely to be turned into cash as quickly as possible, and the modern era, when that attitude has become a wasteful luxury the nation cannot afford.
The proposal also serves as a reminder that when communities yoke their economic destiny to the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, their future is likely to be grim. There's a lesson there for the new energy boomtowns of the West, in case they missed the hundreds of similar lessons scattered across history.
The Clinton-era program that Bush and Rey propose extending, dubbed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, was enacted in response to the spotted owl controversy of the 1990s. But its real roots extend to the 1890s, when Congress authorized the president to create forest reserves that would be closed to settlement to protect them from abuse.
Several presidents put that power to enthusiastic use, notably Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt, who placed millions of forested acres off limits. Keeping that land in federal hands also kept it off the local tax rolls, prompting political concerns about the potential economic impact on rural communities that had hoped to prosper as settlers claimed that land, logged it and turned it into revenue-producing farms and ranches.
In 1906, Congress directed that 10 percent of all money generated by timber sales and other activities in a national forest be returned to the neighboring counties, enabling them to invest in community development and achieve prosperity despite the loss of potential tax revenue. In 1908, the share was boosted to 25 percent, where it remains.
When the mills were buzzing, it was a good deal. But the saws began to fall silent in the 1980s and 1990s, as the unsustainable level of logging finally began to unravel forest ecology across the West, and the money dried up. Congress propped up the system with several supplemental allocation laws, most recently in 2000, but lawmakers never adopted any of the recommended strategies to permanently stabilize the program by disconnecting rural subsidies from fluctuating timber revenues. Most of those reform proposals were undermined by lobbyists for the timber industry and those same rural communities, which opposed any legislation that might weaken the case for increased logging.
Timber-dependent counties have had 100 years to diversify economically and kick their addiction to federal subsidy. They've failed to do so, and now the administration wants to sell family heirlooms to buy them one more fix. Nobody wants rural areas to suffer, but sometimes the kindest thing to do is say "no."