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Opposition Dooms Sale of Forest Land

Even groups that typically ally themselves with Bush criticized the plan to raise money for rural communities by selling protected land.

September 02, 2006|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

A Bush administration proposal to sell 300,000 acres of national forest land -- a quarter of it in California -- to raise money for rural counties has been shelved amid widespread opposition.

Congress refused to move the legislation this summer, and groups that typically ally themselves with the president, such as the National Rifle Assn., came out against the measure, spelling its doom in this congressional session.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, the proposal's chief architect, acknowledged as much last month when he agreed to find other funding for the program, which finances rural schools and roads.

"That's the most likely outcome for this year," Rey said this week. Asked if the administration would attempt to revive the sales proposal next year, he said, "I don't think we know that."

If it does, the reception will probably remain chilly.

"They would be foolish to do so," said Terry Riley, vice president of policy for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a national hunting and fishing coalition. "We're watching very closely and would not expect them to do something like this again."

Also dead is an accompanying administration proposal to require the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the federal government's largest landowner, to dramatically boost its land sales to raise $350 million over the next decade.

The demise of the proposals marks the second recent defeat for efforts to sell substantial public holdings.

Last year a House committee under the leadership of Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy) drafted budget language that would have forced the federal government to sell potentially millions of acres next to mining claims that stud Western public lands. That died after sports groups and westerners complained.

"People love their public lands -- bottom line," said Dan Whiting, spokesman for Republican Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho.

Craig and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon are authors of the rural county program that would have collected $800 million in proceeds from the forest sales. But neither wound up supporting the Bush plan.

"It wasn't a serious proposal. It had no hope of passage," said Josh Kardon, Wyden's chief of staff.

To prod the administration to look for other funding sources, Wyden put a hold on some of the administration's nominees for Interior and Agriculture posts. He lifted them in early August when Rey agreed to a one-year extension of as much as $401 million for the schools program, to be funded with other revenue.

Where that money will come from hasn't been determined. But Kardon said he was confident it would be found. "These are counties that not only supported President Bush, these are the counties that provide the backbone of his remaining support today. We think the president is wise to put those folks back on his radar screen."

The 6-year-old Craig-Wyden program, set to expire this month, funnels money to rural counties that contain large amounts of national forest. Traditionally those counties, most of them in the West, collected a portion of federal timber receipts. But as logging in national forests has declined, so have timber revenues, cutting into budgets.

When the administration released its plan in February, officials said the forest parcels to be sold were isolated, hard to manage and of little value to the 193-million-acre national forest system. The sales list included 85,000 acres in California, the majority of them in the northern part of the state.

But interviews with local forest officials and checks by conservationists revealed that many of the parcels did not fit the administration's description. In California they included wildlands proposed for possible wilderness protection, areas used as winter range by deer and elk, the headwaters of salmon streams and commercial timber lands.

In response to comments, the Forest Service dropped some acreage from the list, but as of June, still proposed to auction 76,000 acres in California.

"It's like mortgaging your house to pay for the groceries," complained Barbara Boyle, senior regional representative of the Sierra Club. "It's taking an asset and getting rid of it for a very short-term goal.

"In a time when California continues to grow, and open space becomes increasingly scarce," she added, "protecting public land is increasingly important."

Ryan Henson, policy director of the California Wilderness Coalition, said sportsmen's opposition was key to blocking the sales. "When anglers, outdoors people come out against this, those people cross party lines."

Rey said a one-year extension of the county program will not solve its long-term funding problems.

"So the question of what to do beyond that one-year extension will remain," he said. Whether the forest sales proposal, "or some variation of it, or some other approach is embraced for that longer-term solution is unknown at this point.

"What I think people have to figure out," Rey added, is whether "there is a better alternative than this, and if so, let's hear it and move forward."

Riley, whose group was among 16 hunting and fishing organizations, including the NRA, that wrote Congress in May to protest the sales, said they would have set a bad precedent.

"There is just no way we see selling public land as an option to generate money for something," Riley said.

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