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How the West was sold

July 31, 2006

NOT EVERY IOTA OF FEDERALLY owned land is an environmental treasure crying out for protection. Some portions would be better sold for private development. That's especially true within the vast Western holdings of the Bureau of Land Management.

The federal government owns about two-thirds of the land in Utah and more than 80% of Nevada, a product of Western states' history -- they were federal territories before they were states. Some isolated communities, surrounded by these protected swaths of unused land, cannot respond to the pressures of growth because they have nowhere left to grow.

Selling off chunks of fenced-off land makes sense. But new proposals to auction BLM property near these towns come with a troubling twist: The money, which could easily run into the billions, wouldn't go to the Treasury to pay down the deficit or otherwise benefit U.S. taxpayers. Instead, a hefty portion would be directed to the communities to build local projects, such as water lines, roads and schools. The rest would be used for federal programs, but only near where the land was sold.

Using federal lands as a piggybank for local projects is a waste of national resources, and as a result might earmark hundreds of millions in federal funds for what won't be the most worthy or urgent public projects. Worse, it gives local communities a strong incentive to pressure the federal government to sell land that might otherwise be preserved for good reason. How about that new highway you've been wanting but haven't been able to afford? Just get the feds to sell off some nearby land and give you the proceeds.

The run on national resources for local profit started with legislation forcing the BLM to sell land around Las Vegas and give the money to Sin City and the state of Nevada. The latest target is Washington County, Utah, near Zion National Park. County officials there lust after 25,000 acres of BLM land, in part so that the popular area can expand, but also to help pay for a $500-million water project they have in mind. They are supported by Utah congressmen from both parties.

President Bush was stymied last year when he rightly tried to direct more of the $4 billion from the Vegas sale to the Treasury. As The Times' Julie Cart reported last month, Western legislators are now lining up with similar proposals for Idaho and New Mexico.

There's nothing wrong with the federal government helping long-pressed areas build public projects. But converting federal resources into local windfalls, at the expense of taxpayers nationwide, is a way to squander money while carving up protected land.

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