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Forest Service May Sell Some Staff Facilities

The agency proposes to put 20% or more of its buildings on the auction block to raise funds for new construction and deferred maintenance.

May 31, 2005|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Wrestling with a long inadequate maintenance budget and facing the prospect of more funding cuts, the U.S. Forest Service is proposing to sell a fifth or more of its staff buildings across the country, including hundreds in California.

A Bush administration plan would allow the Forest Service to go into the real estate business, auctioning staff facilities and the land they sit on to raise cash for upkeep and the construction of new buildings.

Ranger stations, warehouses, residences and remote work centers could be sold under the program, which must be approved by Congress.

Under the heading "Hot Sales!" a government website this spring showcased several Forest Service properties auctioned under a pilot program. Among them were two unused houses in Sierra Madre sold by the Angeles National Forest in Southern California for nearly $1.7 million.

North of Lake Tahoe, Truckee district ranger Joanne Roubique hopes to raise the millions needed for a new ranger complex by selling an old Tahoe National Forest compound that sits on 82 pricey acres next to Truckee's downtown.

Forest Service officials say that nationwide the sales would help them chip away at a $1.2-billion building maintenance backlog by disposing of rundown property and generating cash for new projects. They want to get rid of facilities that are surplus, in bad shape or in the wrong place, but, they stress, forest land itself is not going on the market.

"I think it would be a very bad thing if we were talking about selling national forest lands, and I would be completely against that," said Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth. "From my perspective, these are sites -- in many places, in towns -- that the public doesn't value their national forest for."

Still, some of the properties are in isolated reaches of national forests, and selling them could create pockets of private development, bringing people, pets and noise to wildlife areas.

Outside the agency, some argue that the Forest Service plan is part of a troubling effort to use the sale of public lands to finance basic government operations.

"They all fit into a pattern where we seem to be disposing of public lands indirectly without telling people what we're doing," said UC Berkeley forest policy professor Sally K. Fairfax. "Part of what they're doing is legitimate, but the other half is what scares me."

She cited two other administration proposals.

One would change a congressional spending formula so that billions of dollars from public land auctions in the fast-developing Las Vegas region would go to the U.S. Treasury to offset the federal deficit. Most of the federal money is now used to finance local park projects and to purchase environmentally valuable private holdings in Nevada.

Another plan under consideration would give the U.S. Bureau of Land Management expanded authority to keep a portion of the income from public land sales outside the Las Vegas area, reducing the amount earmarked for federal land purchases.

At the same time, funding is plummeting for the main federal program that finances land conservation acquisitions by the Forest Service and other federal agencies.

The administration has proposed $147 million for federal land acquisition in 2006, down from more than $400 million four years ago. The House recently voted to virtually eliminate it in budget legislation that now goes to the Senate.

Moreover, the Forest Service sales could erode what traditionally has been one of the agency's primary means of acquiring recreation parcels and wildlife habitat -- its land exchange program.

If forest managers can amass cash for long-sought building projects by auctioning a surplus town property, "there would be less chance" they would swap it for back-country acreage, Bosworth acknowledged.

The financial squeeze is all too evident in Truckee, where over the years Roubique estimates she has made 30 to 40 pitches to regional and national Forest Service officials to pay for a new district complex.

"We've had this dream for a while," she said this spring, standing beside a large sketch of the planned compound, which would include ranger offices, barracks and a fire station constructed on a Forest Service parcel next to Interstate 80, a few miles away.

A cluster of ordinary 1930s buildings, the old complex is tucked among towering pines on a rise above downtown. Modern equipment can't fit in the garage bays. To get to forest blazes, the fire crews and seasonal workers who bunk there have to navigate a main street clogged with tourists drawn to Old West storefronts featuring wine, bistro dinners and $300,000 residential lots.

Around Truckee, the Forest Service sale is not controversial. Local conservationists agree that the ranger district needs new facilities and see no reason for the agency to hold on to the 82-acre town parcel, which is expected to fetch $8 million to $10 million.

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