Forest sale kept out of budget resolution

Sunday, April 9, 2006

Widespread opposition to a plan to sell 300,000 acres of national forest land -- including 21,566 acres in Missouri -- stalled the proposal and kept it out of a budget resolution Congress will debate when it returns from Easter recess.

Finding anyone willing to say anything good about the plan is difficult. The proposal has been panned by U.S. Sens. Kit Bond and Jim Talent, U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson and Gov. Matt Blunt. Activists from the pro-hunting Conservation Federation of Missouri to preservationists like the Missouri Coalition for the Environment have also denounced the idea.

The proposed sale would raise about $800 million to fund the Secure Rural Schools Act, a law enacted in 2000 to compensate local governments, mainly in the Pacific Northwest, for the revenue lost after a dramatic reduction in timber harvests on federal land.

In response to the opposition, the forest service last week extended the comment period for public input on the sale until May 1.

Comments received at the Mark Twain National Forest so far are overwhelmingly against the sale, said Charlotte Wiggins, a spokeswoman at the forest's Rolla office.

In all, the forest service proposed selling 338 tracts in 29 counties. In return, Missouri local schools would receive $2.64 million.

"There just aren't a whole lot of folks in Missouri who were excited about it," said Dave Murphy, executive director of the Conservation Federation. "It means a loss of public hunting lands. It is billed as a way to generate funds for rural schools, which is a very needy cause in our state, but there is no guarantee the dollars generated would fill that void."

The key to killing the proposal, opponents said, is to keep it out of the Congressional budget resolution, a blueprint for spending and revenue for the upcoming year. The Bush administration wanted the sale in the bill, but it was dropped in favor of a call to fund the program through cuts in other spending.

Republican leaders in the U.S. House had wanted to pass the resolution last week, but differences on other issues stalled the measure.

Success in keeping it out of the budget resolution won't mean opponents will relax, said Ben McNitt, senior director of communications for the National Wildlife Federation.

"This is exactly the kind of item that someone could attach to a bill at any time," he said. "We don't consider ourselves safe until the closing gavel. This was a major step forward to it not being included in the budget."

Each of the tracts proposed for sale by the forest service is isolated from the main body of land that makes up the Mark Twain National Forest, Wiggins said. All of the tracts were scrutinized to ensure they did not shelter endangered species or contain important archaeological sites, she said.

But the speed with which the list was created raises questions about those assurances, said Jim Scheff of the Missouri Forest Alliance.

The Mark Twain staff received a directive to put together the list in late December, Wiggins said. They were given two weeks to complete their work.

Scheff said he first tried to analyze the significance of each tract, finding, for instance, that the forest service proposed selling the only forest access to the west fork of the Black River and important tracts along the Little Piney River.

But focusing on individual tracts is a mistake, he said. "By focusing on a particular parcel, it lends legitimacy to the sale of other parcels."

Instead, he said, opposition should focus on the plan itself. The forest service has generally followed a policy of not selling land except in rare instances, Scheff said. The most common transaction where the forest service sells land into private hands, he said, is when there is a land swap of an isolated tract for a parcel adjoining a large forest holding.

That change of policy, along with the small benefit for local schools, convinced Emerson the land sale is a bad idea, said Lloyd Smith, Emerson's chief of staff. About 90 percent of the Mark Twain National Forest is in the 8th Congressional District, Smith noted.

"This just hit her wrong," Smith said. "The questions it raises made for a whole lot more questions than answers."

Bond opposes the land sale for essentially the same reasons, said Shawna Stribling, a spokeswoman in his Washington, D.C., office. "The administration needs to come up with a better plan," she said. "It is not a good deal for Missouri."

The forest service traditionally provided money to local schools and local governments two ways -- through royalties received for the harvesting of resources such as timber or mining and payments in lieu of property taxes. The Secure Rural Schools Act, passed in 2000 after the decisions limiting timber cutting in the Pacific Northwest to protect endangered species, was supposed to wean local governments off those payments rather than end them abruptly.

The Bush administration wants to extend the program, set to expire this year, for another five years. And while no one interviewed said they opposed continuing the payments, they agreed that the sale of forest land was about the worst possible way to fund the program.

"We are opposed in principle to giving away our natural heritage," said Dan Sherburne, research field director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. "It took a long time to put together the Mark Twain forest."

Environmental groups will continue to campaign against the proposal, Sherburne said. "You don't want to give up the fight just because it looks like you are going to win," he said. "We are encouraging people to continue to submit comments because they may resurrect it at some point."

335-6611, extension 126

The National Forest Service wants to sell 21,566 acres of the Mark Twain National Forest to fund an extension of the Secure Rural Schools Act. Several tracts in the Poplar Bluff Ranger District are part of the plan. The counties and the acreage that may be sold in each county are:

Bollinger County, 1 tract, 122.52 acres

* Madison County, 11 tracts, 649.02 acres

* Iron County, 29 tracts, 1,692.66 acres

* St. Francois County, 1 tract, 40.25 acres

* Ste. Genevieve County, 4 tracts, 243.52 acres

* Wayne County, 10 tracts, 598.45 acres

* Butler County, 17 tracts, 597.92 acres

To comment

To comment on the proposed sale, contact the U.S. Forest Service. The deadline for comments is May 1.

E-mail: SRS_Land_Sales @fs.fed. us.

Mail: USDA Forest Service, SRS Comments, Lands 4S, 1400 Independence Ave., SW, Mailstop 1124, Washington, D.C., 20250-0003.

Fax: (202) 205-1604.

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