WASHINGTON - The U.S. administration formalized its plan to sell more than 120,000 hectares of national forest to help pay for rural schools in 41 states, submitting legislation to Congress on Thursday to funnel $800 million to the schools over the next five years.
The schools would receive $320 million next year but the figure would drop sharply after that, to just $40 million in its final year, officials said. That would be a 90-per-cent decrease from current spending - a figure some legislators called unacceptable.
The legislation came as four former U.S. Forest Service chiefs blasted the land sale plan as contrary to more than a century of agency practice.
"Selling off public lands to fund other programs, no matter how worthwhile those programs, is a slippery slope," the retired chiefs said, calling the land sale "an unwise precedent."
The letter was signed by Max Peterson, Dale Robertson, Jack Ward Thomas and Michael Dombeck, who headed the Forest Service from 1979 to 2001. The men led the agency under four presidents from both parties.
U.S. agriculture undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, said he welcomes advice from the former chiefs but they must be "suffering from selective memory loss."
Contrary to their letter, the Forest Service has proposed - and Congress has enacted - dozens of land-conveyance bills, Rey said.
"It's not a precedent of any sort, one way or another," Rey said, noting the proposed sales total less than one-half of one per cent of the 78-million-hectare national forest system. Parcels to be sold are isolated, expensive to manage or no longer meet forest system needs, he said.
Legislators from both parties have challenged the land sale, saying short-term gains would be offset by the permanent loss of public lands. They also said profits would fall far short of what's needed to help rural governments pay for schools and other services.
Josh Kardon, chief of staff to U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said the land sale should not distract from the real harm of a severe funding cut for rural schools.
"I am beginning to suspect that the administration is working overtime to keep land sales the issue that everyone debates, so that the public never focuses on the massive loss of funding for rural counties," Kardon said.
The administration's plan would result in a 55-per-cent cut over five years, compared with current spending, which totalled nearly $400 million this year.
Republican senators were more open to the administration plan. Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, who had sharply opposed the land sale at a hearing last month, had moved toward a more neutral position by Thursday.
"At this point, he appreciates the administration's continued willingness to fund the program but doesn't have any specific comments on the proposal until he has more time to review it," said spokesman Dan Whiting.
A spokesman for Senator Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican and chairman of the Senate energy and natural resources committee, said Domenici was "keeping an open mind on the proposal and will do a full review."
Rey said the question for legislators is not whether they like the land sale plan but whether they have a better alternative in a tight budget year.
"Students don't go to school on promises. They go to school on resources," he said.
Copyright © 2006 Canadian Press