It's doubtful the U.S. Forest Service has ever considered the Bush administration an ally. The White House's budget called for $234 million in cuts to the USFS last year and $150 million in cuts this year. In 2005, Bush also repealed a Clinton-era rule that protected 58 million acres of national forest from logging and mining.
So Bush and forests: not so much old friends. And it doesn't look like they'll be getting chummier any time soon. Buried in the fiscal year 2007 budget is a proposal to sell off more than 300,000 acres of national forest land, including 973 acres in the Ocala National Forest. Bush says the plan is important to help out rural schools. Critics say the administration is selling national treasures.
"The president's proposal to sell a huge chunk of the Ocala National Forest is an ill-advised scheme to raise revenue to cover the fact that the administration has spent recklessly and run up record budget deficits," says Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson via e-mail.
The issue centers on the fact that the federal government owns vast chunks of land in the West. As of 1999, the feds owned 44 percent of California, 62 percent of Idaho and more than 80 percent of Nevada. Because local municipalities in areas with national forests have less taxable land, their tax bases are lower, reducing the pot of money they have available for schools and roads.
So, back in 1908, the federal government agreed to give 25 percent of timber sales in federal lands to states in which national forests are located. That's been the deal for nearly 100 years.
But as timber sales decreased, so has funding for rural schools and roads. In 2000 a year when the government had a $230 billion budget surplus Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, which guaranteed funding for five years to help states offset reduced timber receipts. During those five years, local municipalities were supposed to wean themselves off the government's milk.
Fast-forward five years, and that $230 billion surplus is now an $8.2 trillion deficit, and with the act about to run out, Western states say there's still a need for the money. The government is willing to help fund the states for five more years, but how will the government come up with the money? Enter Bush's plan.
To raise the estimated $800 million needed to aid rural area schools and roads for another five years, the forest service has chosen 309,000 acres of national forest for auction. This is still just a proposal. Congress would have to pass the president's budget with this section intact for the sale to move forward. At the end of this month, the federal register will issue a call for comments, which you can access through the forest service website, www.fs.fed.us.
If or when the budget is passed probably not for months the tracts will then be appraised at market value and put out for all to bid on, probably through the forest service website.
For Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, one of the original sponsors of the Secure Rural Schools legislation in 2000, this proposal doesn't fly. "The administration found billions to fund subsidies for energy company boondoggles, so I have trouble believing they couldn't find the money in this budget environment to maintain support for rural Oregon counties," Wyden said in a recent statement.
Much of the acreage is "isolated or inefficient to manage," according to the president's proposal. Few national forests are completely contiguous. For instance, when the government bought Ocala National Forest, there were vast swaths of land that were privately owned. If you look at a map of the forest, you'll notice that it's a checkerboard of government-owned forest and private property. The "isolated" plots of national forest up for sale are, for the most part, in the middle of these privately owned lands.
Denise Rains, spokeswoman for U.S. Forest Service in Florida, says many of the 14 parcels in Ocala which range from less than one acre to more than 210 acres were previously chosen as targets for land exchange, meaning they would swap the lands for more environmentally sensitive lands deeper in the forest. So when the time came to select lands to sell, the parcels were natural choices. Now, however, instead of getting land for land, the national forest will get nothing.
This isn't the first time Republicans have proposed selling federal lands to pay for budgetary needs. Following Hurricane Katrina, Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo introduced legislation that called for the sale of 15 percent of all federal lands to help pay for the storm recovery. In Oct. 2005, California Republican Rep. Richard Pombo proposed allowing mining companies to buy public lands in the West.
But the current proposal is one of the few examples of the federal government selling land to fund an ongoing program, and conservationists are worried that the ecological impacts far outweigh the potential positives of a sale. Many of the proposed tracts in the Ocala National Forest border water. Lake Bryant, in the southwest corner of the forest, is surrounded by land that would be put up for sale.
"Any parcel on water that is being sold is a potential for environmental problems," says Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon of Florida.
Lee points to another problem with the acres chosen. There has been a lot of talk lately about the environmental impacts of widening State Road 40, which cuts through the heart of the forest. In a report issued this February, members of the State Road 40 Collaborative Task Force wrote that one of the best ways to offset any impacts is to buy some of the privately owned lands along S.R. 40. In more than one instance the land they recommend buying is right next to land the forest service now plans to sell.
"This would be a self-defeating sell of our lands," says Lee. "On one hand we're trying to buy up lands along 40, on the other hand we're selling neighboring land."
So who chose the lands?
Rains, with Florida's forest service, says her office was involved in the selection of the lands. No forest rangers would comment on the sale, but Dan McLaughlin, Sen. Nelson's spokesman, says none of the Florida forest managers his office spoke with knew anything about the proposal until it was announced. Lee has his opinion, too: "Some desk jockey bureaucrat in Washington picked up a map he knew little about and chose these lands."
According to Rains, anyone can bid on the lands, and once they're in private hands, the county will have control over the zoning of the property. So any John Doe who has enough money can buy himself a plot of land right on Lake Bryant and build a house.
"What if every acre we sell produces a house?" asks Lee. "The impacts on the forest would be devastating."
Bush's Undersecretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, Mark Rey a former timber lobbyist says only about 175,000 acres of the more than 300,000 proposed will need to be sold to raise the $800 million. Still, what if after this second five-year transition period, rural municipalities still haven't found other funds to support schools and roads?
For Marion, Lake and Putnam counties, the stakes are high. The three counties in which Ocala National Forest lies received a total of $1.2 million this year through the Secure Rural Schools program. If those counties haven't found alternate revenue sources in five years, what will the government sell next?[email protected]