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Bush wants to sell thousands of acres
Seattle Times
By Hal Bernton
February 11, 2006

The Bush administration on Friday proposed the largest Forest Service land sale in decades, listing 309,421 acres in more than 30 states — including nearly 7,500 acres in Washington state.

The plan, which requires congressional approval, would funnel the money from sales to rural counties, in part to replace proposed cutbacks of federal dollars that now help pay for schools and roads.

Most of the Forest Service tracts are small, isolated parcels adjacent to private or state land. Successful bidders could develop, or possibly log, these lands so long as they complied with state and local land-use laws.

"The lands we identified today are isolated and expensive to manage," said Mark Rey, undersecretary of agriculture in a Friday news conference in Washington, D.C. "In some places, they are part of Forest Service ownership more as an accident of history."

In Washington, the potential sale acreage is scattered across the state, including tracts in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and the Colville, Wenatchee, Olympic, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie, Okanogan and Wenatchee national forests.

One of the largest proposed sales involves seven tracts — totaling more than 1,300 acres — in a remote Sultan River corridor in Snohomish County popular with kayakers.

The land sales are part of President Bush's new budget proposal, which seeks to pare the federal deficit. As part of those cuts, the administration seeks to phase out taxpayer payments to rural timber counties and partial replacement of those dollars with land-sale revenues.

Information

Proposal details: The U.S. Forest Service property that will potentially be sold can be viewed on the Forest Service Web site: www.fs.fed.us/land/staff/rural_schools.shtml

Scrutiny ahead

Forest Service officials say the sales are targeted to raise $800 million over the next five years, and that only about 200,000 of the more than 309,000 acres would likely have to be sold to reach that goal.

Nationwide, the potential sale represents a tiny fraction of the more than 190 million federal acres now managed by the Forest Service. But the plan is certain to face tough scrutiny in Congress.

Conservationists attack the idea of selling public lands to help finance government.

Meanwhile, rural county officials fear swapping taxpayer dollars for slimmer, and more uncertain, revenue generated by land sales. Administration officials project that even if all sales go as planned, rural counties would still wind up, on average, with half as much federal money to fund roads and schools.

"As I look at it, they are holding rural counties hostage and saying if you don't sell off forest lands to the highest bidder, then we are going to cut money for your schools," said Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash.

Regional forest officials say the sales list was cobbled together over the past month and generally tried to exclude scenic lands that shelter threatened and endangered species.

During the selection process, the list was not widely distributed, even within the agency.

"For many in our agency, today [Friday] is the first day we could see it," said Alan Gibbs, a Puget Sound regional public-affairs official.

Forest Service officials say the tracts have yet to undergo a full review, and some parcels could be dropped from the proposed sale list.

The Sultan River tracts on the west side of the Cascades follow a roughly 8-mile stretch of the drainage — below the Spada Dam — that flows through a rugged canyon area that also includes forest. The area adjoins state lands, and there already is opposition to selling off the acreage.

"We would like to see that land stay in U.S. Forest Service ownership. That is a very rare piece of low-elevation forest that is extremely unique," said Thomas O'Keefe, a regional coordinator with American Whitewater. "The land is one of the most spectacular remote river canyons in the whole region."

Gorge concerns

In the Columbia Gorge region, where more than 500 acres would be put up for sale on the Washington side, Forest Service officials say they have mainly chosen farm parcels and treeless lands on the arid east side.

Al McKee, a Skamania County commissioner, said he could support some land sales within the gorge if that would help spur development and create jobs. But he says federal support for the county, which provides nearly 30 percent of school funding, needs to be maintained at current levels.

If that money fades away, the county will have few options.

"Other counties might be able to transition, but for us, we just kind of drop off a cliff and pick up the pieces," he said.

On the east side of the Cascades, the list includes one forested parcel of 160 acres in the Okanogan forest. But many of the listed parcels are just outside the forest, in the transition zone of pines and chaparral, according to Paul Hart, a spokesman with the Wenatchee National Forest.

The Forest Service will publish a notice in the Federal Register around Feb. 28 requesting public comment. At that time, more detailed maps will be available for all potentially eligible lands.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com. Reporter Christopher Schwarzen contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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