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Bush Wants Rollback Of Public Land Protection (2003)

(ENS) WASHINGTON -- President Bush's proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2007 includes proposals to sell nearly $1 billion worth of public lands to raise money for the federal treasury.

If these budget provisions are approved by Congress, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will for the first time have mandatory sales targets to meet.

The administration has set its sights on selling over 300,000 acres of Forest Service land in 32 states and more than 500,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands in the West.

At a press conference Tuesday organized by the Wilderness Society a former solicitor with the U.S. Department of the Interior, and professor of law at University of California-Hastings said the BLM routinely makes adjustments in land holdings, buying and selling small parcels in consultation with local communities.

But John Leshy said the FY 2007 budget mandates a different process, "not locally driven, but driven by money targets."

"This process is top down, and it doesn't cut local communities in," he said.

The FY 2007 budget gives the BLM a $182 million revenue target over the years from 2007 through 2011. Then, in the years 2008 through 2016 the BLM's mandatory revenue target is an additional $351 million.

Leshy said lands approaching the size of the state of Rhode Island would have to be sold off to meet the 2007-2011 targets.

"It's bad policy," said Leshy. "Federal lands are our natural heritage and they should not be used as a cookie jar. It is clear that Americans want more land conservation not less."

Mandatory revenue targets will change the attitude of BLM staffers about looking for lands to dispose of, the critics warn.

While not commenting specifically on the public lands sale targets, BLM Director Kathleen Clarke said, "This budget request supports BLM's multiple-use mission and advances key national priorities."

Dave Alberswerth, senior policy advisor and BLM specialist with The Wilderness Society, says the new policy is "a slippery slope" that could lead to even greater sell-offs of public lands in the future.

"They're starving these agencies so they need to sell off public lands," said Alberswerth. "It's equivalent to selling your house to pay off your credit card debt."

"From a policy perspective, the BLM has never had revenue targets before," Alberswerth said. "Their land sales have always been to get rid of hard to manage lands, but this is a public land liquidation program."

Alberswerth says public land sales on this scale are not popular in the western states where there is a high proportion of sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts, which he calls "a conservation majority."

A sell-off of millions of acres of public lands for mining was proposed last year by California Congressman Richard Pombo, who chairs the House Resources Committee. It was defeated, and Alberswerth expressed surprise that the Bush administration would make a similar proposal.

Jerry Conley, a former director of the Idaho Fish and Game Department, said, "We already know we'll never have more public lands that we have right now because we will have development pressures."

As "a fly fisherman cares about water quality," Conley said public lands act as a "giant sponge" and are key to protecting water quality.

A proposal in the Bush Fiscal Year 2007 budget requires the sale of National Forest System lands to fund continuation of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000.

The Act would have to be amended to allow sale of $800 million worth of lands above the current baseline for a five year extension of forest county safety net payments.

The Forest Service says these lands would be chosen for sale because they are " isolated or inefficient to manage."

Because of the Forest Legacy and land acquisition programs, there is no expected net loss of lands protected by Forest Service action, the agency says.

National Forest lands proposed for sale would be subject to public disclosure and scrutiny to ensure they are appropriate for sale, the Service says. The public will have a 30 day comment period on the list of potentially eligible lands.

Alberswerth and Conley say that although the agency says the lands posted for sale are hard to manage scattered areas, some provide access to to other areas of public lands.

They warn that the sale of even small parcels of public land can then block public access to larger public areas of forest or grasslands.

Mike Francis of The Wilderness Society points out that a lot of timber companies have development companies. "They would buy tracts along rivers, or any water body, timber it and put it up for trophy homes."

© 2006 Environment News Service and reprinted by special permission

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Albion Monitor   February 16, 2006   (

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