The Bush administration Friday laid out plans to sell off more than $1 billion in public lands over the next decade, including 85,000 acres of national forest land in California.
Most of the proceeds would help pay for rural schools and roads, making up for a federal subsidy that has been eliminated from President Bush's 2007 budget.
Congress must approve the plans, which several experts said would amount to the largest land sale of its kind since President Theodore Roosevelt established the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 and created the modern national forest system.
"This is a fire sale of public lands. It is utterly unprecedented," said Char Miller, professor of environmental history at Trinity University in Houston, who has written extensively about the Forest Service. "It signals that the lands and the agency that manages them are in deep trouble. For the American public, it is an awful way to understand that it no longer controls its public land."
The Forest Service has earmarked more than 300,000 acres for sale in 32 states, including tracts in California national forests, ranging in size from 90 acres in Angeles National Forest to 32,921 acres in the Klamath National Forest. Most of the California land slated for the auction block would be scattered across six national forests in the Sierra Nevada.
In a companion proposal inserted into this week's massive 2007 budget, White House officials directed the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to sell off at least $350 million worth of public land, with the money to go directly to the general treasury.
High-ranking officials in the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, said Friday the forest lands selected for sale are "isolated, expensive to manage and no longer meeting Forest Service system needs," and do not include wilderness areas or habitat vital to wildlife.
"Is selling off Bitterroot National Forest or the Sierra National Forest or Yellowstone National Park a good idea? No, not in general," said Mark Rey, undersecretary of Agriculture. "But I challenge these people who are engaging in this flowery rhetoric ... to take a hard look at these specific parcels and tell me they belong in national forest ownership."
While acknowledging the proposed sale is the largest of its kind in decades, and possibly ever, Rey said the national forest system has swelled to 193 million acres, and that the amount sold would amount to less than one-tenth of 1%. He also said that all of the acreage could be regained in new land acquisitions, although he acknowledged reduced funding for such programs.
Rey added: "Education of rural schoolchildren, that's an investment in the nation's future as important as any other investment we could make. That purpose justifies the approach we're proposing."
Rey said the sales were necessary because it was impossible to find enough funds elsewhere in a declining Forest Service budget to make up for the loss of the school and road subsidies. He said the properties would be subject to fair market appraisals.
The Forest Service's proposed budget for 2007 is $4.1 billion, down about $160 million from 2006.
The public will have 30 days to comment after maps of the lands proposed for sale are published, which the agency expects to do by the end of the month. Some parcels might be removed if they are deemed too valuable to lose.
Several members of Congress criticized the proposed sales, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who called them "a terrible idea based on a misguided sense of priorities. First, the administration is proposing to sell off public lands to help finance the president's budget. And secondly, the administration plans to ratchet down and then terminate an important program that has been the lifeblood for rural schools in California and many other states. I will do everything I can to defeat this effort."
Feinstein said that though funding of rural schools and roads should continue, it shouldn't be through the sale of public lands. Noting that California's rural counties received $69 million from the program, Feinstein said, "a stable funding source must be provided, but not at the expense of our wilderness."
Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said continued funding for rural roads and schools should come from the general fund, not public land sales.
"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," he said in a statement.
But Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), who heads the subcommittee that will take up the matter, was more guarded. In a statement, he said that though he was "very pleased" that the president included funding for rural counties, "I do have preliminary concerns.... Public lands are an asset that need to be managed and conserved."
Congress mandated payments to the counties from the federal treasury in 2000 after the timber industry declined and revenue for local schools and roads dried up. That appropriation expires at the end of 2006, and there is a bipartisan effort in the Senate to extend the payments another five years.
Officials of two rural California counties said they needed the revenue that the land sales would generate.
El Dorado County Supervisor Helen Baumann said she has been lobbying to keep $4 million in federal funds coming. "Any reduction in that would have an impact on us," she said.
Baumann said she wasn't sure if the proceeds from public lands would match that funding, but "any help whatsoever to give relief to the rural counties would be appreciated."
Alpine County Supervisor Henry "Skip" Veatch said the county would favor federal land sales, adding, however, "I'm not in favor of someone coming in and saying these are the plots that are going to be sold.
"I would hope that the local people -- the elected officials, residents and business owners -- would at least have some say."
Veatch emphasized the importance of the funds for the mountainous county's schools and roads, which historically depended on the timber industry for most of its revenue.
"It's huge," he said. "We're a really small county."
Some conservation groups worry that forest land sales could break up important wildlife corridors and lead to construction of homes along scenic stretches of wild rivers.
Rey said the Forest Service might give extra time to nonprofits seeking to raise money to preserve open space, but would also seek private investors. He said private stakeholders such as timber companies or oil and gas groups had not been consulted directly on which parcels should be sold, but that some of the plots might have been selected based on such "conversations in recent months and years."
The president's budget also requires the Bureau of Land Management to radically increase its land sales, mandating $350 million in sales by 2016. Although the agency has authority to sell land at any time, it is not common. According to BLM spokeswoman Celia Boddington, in 2004 the agency sold less than 10,000 acres, raising $16 million for the federal treasury.
In a separate program, however, the BLM raised nearly $1 billion from the sale of 10,000 to 12,000 acres in and around Las Vegas in 2005.
Boddington said the agency has no idea yet how many acres it would be required to sell to meet the budget goals. The BLM is the largest federal landowner, with 260 million acres spread across the West.
The list of national forest lands that could be sold is available at www.fs.fed.us/land/staff/spd.html.
Times staff writers Julie Cart and Stephen Clark contributed to this report.
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Forest Service sale
The Bush administration's proposal to sell over 300,000 acres of federal land could include up to 85,465 acres in California, 27.6% of the nationwide total. Here's a look at the national forests in the state with the acreage that could be affected:
4,513 of 899,000
2,523 of 958,000
2,184 of 675,000
Total acreage in
Sources: Benchmark Maps, National Forest Service
Data analysis by Ray Enslow