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Forest Land Sale Plan Goes Forward

March 17, 2006|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration formalized its plan to sell more than 300,000 acres 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 get $320 million next year, but the figure would drop sharply after that, to $40 million in its final year, officials said. That would be a 90% decrease from current spending -- a figure Western lawmakers called unacceptable.

The legislation came as four former Forest Service chiefs criticized 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. The men led the agency under four presidents from both parties.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, said he welcomed advice from the former chiefs, but said they must be "suffering from selective memory loss."

Contrary to their letter, the Forest Service has proposed -- and Congress has enacted -- dozens of land transfer bills, Rey said.

Lawmakers from both parties have challenged the land sale, saying short-term gains would be offset by the permanent loss of public lands.

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