Bush budget would sell land to raise $1 billion

/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush's budget proposal calls for raising more than $1 billion over five years by selling off public lands deemed to have little scenic, recreational or resource value, drawing criticism from environmental groups.

"When Western residents wake up to the fact that the Bush administration has a ... scheme to divest the public of its lands, I don't think people are going to like that very much," Dave Alberswerth, a public lands expert with The Wilderness Society, told The Salt Lake Tribune.

U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials say the sale of parcels, including isolated tracts that can be hard to manage, would allow them to operate more efficiently and generate new revenue for operations.

Should Congress approve the proposals, some $250 million would come from selling 125,000 acres of the Bureau of Land Management's 261 million acres. The BLM proceeds would go to the federal treasury.

The lands are typically part of a "checkerboard" pattern of small parcels surrounded by suburban or urban areas, Interior Department officials say. The administration anticipates selling them for $2,000 an acre.

The Forest Service plans to sell up to 200,000 acres, with most parcels in the 10 to 100 acre range.

Forest Service officials say the sales are needed to raise $800 million over the next five years to pay for schools and roads in rural counties hurt by logging cutbacks on federal land.

Sales not for habitat
Congress gave BLM the authority in 2000 to use the proceeds from the sale of some surplus land to buy new land valued for its wildlife habitat, but the latest proposal calls for the sale of land simply to raise money.

BLM budget officer Mike Ferguson said his agency has about $25 million in a land acquisition fund from earlier sales. In 2005, the BLM sold off 8,409 acres for $16 million.

"We probably don't need to acquire as much additional land as we're disposing of and we have a lot of other needs in terms of managing the lands we do have," Ferguson told The Salt Lake Tribune. "It's nice to be able to find a revenue stream that will help meet some of the other discretionary programs."

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., called the approach wrong.

“Selling public lands to pay down the deficit would be a short-sighted, ill-advised and irresponsible shift in federal land management policy,” he said in a statement. “I have supported targeted land transfers to local communities, and land exchanges to improve how we manage public lands. The president’s plan, though, would turn this existing process upside down, just to make the administration’s budget numbers look better.”

Lease concerns
Activist groups are also objecting to a lease auction planned later this month of public lands in Utah for oil and gas development. The sale will offer drilling leases to parcels off the Green River in Labyrinth Canyon, a popular stop for river runners, and in the San Rafael Desert, a remote area of narrow slot canyons, shifting sand dunes, sculpted rock and miles of roadless expanse.

Green River in Labyrinth Canyon, a popular stop for river runners

"Once again, the BLM and the Department of the Interior are rushing to lease and develop as much public land as they can, as fast as they can," said Stephen Bloch, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "BLM is selling off public treasures that are of great historical and natural significance."

In Colorado, the BLM has drawn criticism over an oil-and-gas auction Thursday that included parcels nominated for wilderness protection and land used for community watersheds.

Earlier this week, the BLM withdrew leases proposed on about 7,300 acres along the San Miguel River to review objections to their sale.

Companies nominate parcels for lease that the BLM has identified in management plans as appropriate for mineral development. Some of the land is split estate: the surface is privately owned while the minerals are owned by the federal government.

Forest Service Web site
Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs forest policy, said the parcels to be sold are isolated, expensive to manage or no longer meet the needs of the national forest system. The administration expects to have to sell only about 200,000 of the 309,000 acres identified to meet the $800 million goal, he said.

"These are not the crown jewels we are talking about," Rey said in an interview. The public can review the land parcels that are up for sale on the Forest Service's Web site, Rey said. Maps of just four national forests were posted as of Friday, but Rey said all the properties should be posted by month's end.

The public will have until late March to comment on the proposed sales.

"This is a reasonable proposal to take a small fraction of a percentage of national land which is the least necessary and use it for those in need and achieve an important overarching public purpose," Rey said.

The proposed sell-off would total less than half of 1 percent of the 193 million-acre national forest system. The money would be used for roads, schools and other needs in rural counties hurt by sharp declines in timber sales in the wake of federal forest policy that restricts logging to protect endangered species such as the spotted owl.

BLM lands near urban areas
A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management, which previously said it will sell another 125,000 acres, said BLM land to be sold would be identified at the local level. The lands are typically part of a checkerboard pattern of small parcels surrounded by suburban or urban areas, Interior officials say, and have been identified as holding little natural, historical, cultural or energy value.

BLM spokeswoman Celia Boddington said much of the land would be near urban areas with high market value. In recent years, the government has sold parcels for tens of millions of dollars in Nevada, for example, she said.

"Lands formerly remote are now abutting metro areas. That is certainly the case in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah," she said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called the plan "a terrible idea based on a misguided sense of priorities."

Not only is the administration proposing to sell off public lands to help finance the president's budget, the move also won't sufficiently fund the rural schools program, which has helped California and other states, Feinstein said. "I will do everything I can to defeat this effort," she said.

Nearly 500 parcels totaling more than 85,000 acres in California are identified for possible sale.

The proposal follows a failed move last year to allow the sale of public lands for mining. Western senators had criticized the idea, as well as a plan by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., to sell off 15 national parks.

The names of the Forest Service parcels announced so far are at www.fs.fed.us/land/staff/rural_schools.shtml