President Bush on at the White House in Washington, Tuesday. (AP / Gerald Herbert
President Bush wants to sell more public land across the West to raise
money for schools, conservation and deficit reduction.
Bush's proposed 2007 federal budget, sent to Congress on Monday, calls for
granting the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management new authority
to sell off land. Those agencies together control hundreds of millions of acres
in Western states.
Democrats and environmentalists compare the idea to recent proposals by Tom
Tancredo and other Republicans in Congress to sell federal land to pay for hurricane
relief and invigorate the mining industry.
Dave Alberswerth of the Wilderness Society dubbed the new sell-off
proposal "a billion-dollar privatization program."
And Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., sees it as a destructive way to pay for what
he considers reckless tax cuts. "It's like selling your homestead to pay
your credit cards," he said.
Administration officials, however, say they're merely tinkering with existing
programs that let them sell scattered lands with little natural value.
"We have 350,000 acres of small, isolated tracts that are difficult to
manage and no longer serve National Forest System needs," said Agriculture
Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service. He also said the agency
adds more than 100,000 acres a year.
The Forest Service proposes selling 150,000 to 200,000 acres to raise $800
million over five years.
The agency is trying to maintain a program that supported rural schools with
timber proceeds but ran into financial trouble when logging declined.
The BLM doesn't have an estimate of how many acres it might sell under the
plan, but it expects to sell land worth $40 million to $50 million per year.
Some of the money would go to BLM conservation programs, but at least 70 percent
would go to the Treasury.
Neither agency has said what lands it expects to sell, but the Forest Service
is expected to post a list of potential sites on its website by Friday.
Recent attempts to sell public land have not been popular. In December, Rep.
Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., withdrew his plan to allow mining companies to buy public
land amid complaints that it would lead to backcountry development.
Tancredo, R-Colo., introduced a bill in September that would order the Interior
Department to sell 15 percent of its land to offset the costs of repairing Hurricane
Katrina's damage to the Gulf Coast. The Interior Department oversees the BLM
and the national park system.
"The president's budget takes a common-sense approach to public lands
that Westerners appreciate," Tancredo said Tuesday. "The federal government
should sell land that it has no business owning in order to fund more important
functions and to return the land to the local tax base."
Staff writer Mike Soraghan can be reached at 202-662-8730 or firstname.lastname@example.org.