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Blunt, others oppose forest land sale

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The U.S. Forest Service's plan would fund rural schools in 41 states.

WASHINGTON -- Missouri officials are lining up against a Bush administration plan to sell thousands of acres of Mark Twain National Forest, saying too much of the proceeds would go to rural schools outside the state.

Gov. Matt Blunt said Friday he could not support a proposal to sell more than 21,000 acres of forest land in Missouri when state schools would receive only a small percentage of the revenue.

"It appears that much of the identified forest land provides a valuable contribution toward recreation, scenic beauty and quality of life for Missouri residents," Blunt said in a letter to Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service.

Also Friday, Sens. Kit Bond and Jim Talent and Rep. Jo Ann Emerson -- all Republicans -- sent a letter to Rey opposing the plan. They called for an alternate source of funding that doesn't jeopardize the Mark Twain National Forest.

"This formula is grossly inequitable and we will continue to fight for an alternate solution to fund our rural schools," the members of Congress said in the letter.

The comments came a day after the Forest Service formalized plans to sell 150,000 to 200,000 acres of national forest to help pay for rural schools in 41 states. Forest Service officials say the sales are necessary to raise $800 million for schools that no longer receive enough revenue from federal timber sales.

The way the proposal is structured, however, Missouri would sell off more land than other states but receive fewer dollars for its schools. The state would collect only $2.64 million in revenue from the sale of 21,566 acres of Mark Twain National Forest, according to the letter from Bond, Talent and Emerson.

By contrast, Oregon is slated to sell only 10,581 acres of land in exchange for more than $260 million for its rural schools, the letter from congressional members said.

The Forest Service proposal still needs congressional approval. But lawmakers from both parties have challenged the plan, saying short-term financial gains would be offset by the permanent loss of public lands.

Blunt also challenged Forest Service claims that most the land proposed for sale around the country is isolated, expensive to manage or no longer meet forest system needs.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Rey said the Mark Twain parcels are not among the "crown jewels" of U.S. Forest Service land. He described them as typical of many eastern forests, made up of "worn-out farmland" and "former cotton fields."

"In actuality, many of the tracts appear to be located in areas where land is accessible, utilized and valuable," Blunt's letter said.

Most the forest land proposed for sale falls in Emerson's Missouri district. She indicated her opposition to the plan last week, calling the formula for distributing the sale proceeds unfair.

"Right now, we are looking at a proposal to trade a dollar of forest land for a dime of education funding," Emerson said. "In the plan's present form, under the present formula, I can't support that trade-off."


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