WASHINGTON - The Bush administration will unveil a proposal Friday to sell up to 200,000 acres of national forest land in "isolated parcels" ranging from a quarter of an acre to 200 acres, much of it in California.
The sale is part of a National Forest Service plan to raise $800 million over the next five years to pay for rural schools in 41 states, offsetting shrinking revenues from sale of timber from national forests. The Bureau of Land Management also plans to sell federal lands to raise an estimated $182 million over five years.
Sequoia National Park, Sierra Nevadas, California
Isolated groves of giant sequoias grow on the foggy moist western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. These trees are the world's largest and nearly oldest living things. The General Sherman tree is 272 feet high and measures 27 feet in diameter at the base. It is estimated to be 3,500 years old.
Environmentalists charge that the short-term gain would be more than offset by the loss of public land. Congress would have to approve the land sales, but it has rejected similar recent proposals.
"I am outraged, and I don't think the public is going to stand for it for one minute," said Wilderness Society policy analyst Mike Anderson. "It's a scheme to raise money at the expense of the national forests, the wildlife, recreation and all the other values that Americans hold dear. It's the ultimate threat to the national forest."
Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, said the proposed land sales make sense.
"Private property will end up in the possession of those who value it the most," Taylor said. "That is an iron law of economics."
Details about what plots of land would be put up for sale are expected to be revealed at a noon press conference by Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist. The Forest Service owns 193 million acres of land and plans to sell about 175,000 to 200,000 acres, according to Forest Service spokeswoman Heidi Valetkevitch.
"They could be theoretically from every national forest," Valetkevitch said. "California has a lot on the list, I understand."
The lands in question aren't environmentally sensitive wilderness or protected scenic areas, Valetkevitch said. "It could be something that's in a neighborhood that people don't even know is forest land," she said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., attacked the plan as "crazy," saying: "Here the administration wants to pass more tax cuts for the rich, and to pay the bill, they want to sell off public land - our nation's natural heritage."
The Forest Service owns 20 percent of California, including much of the Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe, Big Sur and dense forests along the Oregon border. The Bureau of Land Management owns 15 percent of the Golden State.
Rural schools get 25 percent of federal forest timber sale proceeds, but those revenues have fallen, so the idea is to sell forest land to make up for that, Valetkevitch said.
Anderson of the Wilderness Society argued that money for rural schools could come from many sources and that the land sales are being proposed "so the budget deficit doesn't get worse." He noted that if forests are sold, future federal timber sales likely would yield even less money for rural schools.
The president's new fiscal 2007 federal budget calls for the bureau to raise $1 million in 2007 land sales, $28 million in 2008, $40 million in 2009, $42 million in 2010 and $71 million in 2011.
Dave Alberswerth, a Wilderness Society senior policy adviser, said that would be "way more than they have been selling in recent years." From 2000 to 2004, the bureau sold 13,160 acres for an average price of $320 an acre, he said. At that rate, the government would have to sell more than half a million acres to garner $182 million.
© 2006 KR Washington Bureau and wire service sources