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Land Trusts and Government First in Line

Liberty Matters News Service


Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Mark Rey has announced that state and local governments, as well as, non-profit land trusts will have the right of first refusal when and if excess forest properties hit the auction block. Rey said the targeted properties considered the most valuable and the least controversial will be auctioned first. The sell-off will close as soon as the $800 million mark is reached. The plan has drawn fire from both sides of the political aisle, but Rey explained that no one had yet come forth with a better plan to fund the rural schools that used to depend in large part on money from timber sales. "[The] fact is we have been talking about this for a month now and this is the only proposal with funding to reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools Act," Rey said. The areas to be sold are usually isolated parcels that are difficult and expensive to manage and are a drop in the bucket compared to the 193 million acres of government forests. Environmentalists have complained bitterly that those parcels are necessary for wildlife corridors and as possible wilderness areas. Rey said those concerns will be taken into consideration.


Governments, nonprofits will have first right to bid on lands

By EVE BYRON - IR Staff Writer - 03/01/06

More details of a Bush administration plan to sell off hundreds of thousands of acres of Forest Service lands to raise money for rural schools and roads were provided Tuesday by Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Mark Rey during a nationwide conference call.

Rey said the sale will carry a provision that allows local and state governments, as well as nonprofit land trusts, to have the right of first refusal on properties they believe are valuable to the public.

He also elaborated on the method in which the lands will be auctioned off, saying that those with the most value and the least controversy will be placed at the top of the list. Once $800 million in land is sold — which is the goal of the sale — no other forest lands will be auctioned off, Rey said.

“We’ll do an auction at the individual forest level, parcel by parcel, starting at the top of the list and working our way down, until we hit $800 million,” Rey said. “I expect that a few of those will be picked up at the state and local level, and the others will be sold at auction to the highest bidder.”

But all of this taking place relies on the premise that the land sale will get the blessing of Congress, and Rey acknowledged Tuesday that it’s been “greeted with skepticism” by many legislators.

“That’s not surprising because we know that land sales are sensitive and there’s a desire to learn a lot more about it before people make a definitive decision one way or another,” Rey said. “If there is another alternative available that would be far more preferable for funding rural schools, then I would like to hear it. But the fact is we have been talking about this for a month now and this is the only proposal with funding to reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools Act.”

The federal land sale has been decried by Republicans and Democrats alike, including Montanan’s entire congressional delegation. Sens. Conrad Burns and Max Baucus, as well as Rep. Denny Rehberg, say the sale will hurt Montanans access to public lands, and the one-time cash influx from the sale doesn’t address long-term funding needs for many counties.

In Montana, about 13,900 acres may be offered for sale, including six tracts totaling 336 acres in the Helena National Forest.

“Sen. Burns doesn’t believe it’s wise to remove an important priority from a dedicated line item, where it’s fully funded every year, to being at the mercy of some other funding stream that’s not guaranteed,” Matt Mackowiak. Burns spokesman, said on Tuesday.

He added that the current system works well, and the act should be reauthorized before it expires on Sept. 30. Burns was one of the co-sponsors of both the original SRSA legislation in 2000 and the pending reauthorization bill.

The proposed land sale is part of President Bush’s 2007 budget, and would raise about $800 million during the next five years to help pay rural school and road costs in 41 states. Since 1908, counties’ school and road costs have been aided by 25 percent of revenues raised through timber sales and grazing fees. But as timber harvests declined, so did the sales revenues going to counties.

In 2000, the Secure Rural Schools Act created a formula to try to stabilize the payments for 2001-06. It guaranteed payments, along with a certain amount from timber receipts.

Locally last year, Lewis and Clark County received $446,500 from the national forests; Broadwater got $85,000; and Jefferson County took in $190,700, according to Jerry Meyer, public information officer for the Helena National Forest.

But the federal government wants to wean counties from the guaranteed payments and instead revert mainly to payments from the timber receipts, according to Rey. During the first year, counties would get about the same amount as they do now, but that would be reduced each successive year.

Rey previously said that he expects this will end with counties receiving about half of what they have in the past from the Forest Service, but that loss in federal money could be offset in counties by additional revenues once the public parcels are put on the tax rolls.

The Bureau of Land Management also has been tasked to sell off federal lands to raise about $182 million during the next five years. The list of lands that could be sold hasn’t been finalized yet.

The Forest Service lands that would be sold are a small percentage of the 193 million acres included in the National Forest, Rey said, and typically are isolated parcels that are expensive to manage and aren’t vital to wildlife or recreation. But conservationists and forest officials have pointed out parcels on the list that have been identified as crucial wildlife corridors, winter ranges or habitat for threatened species, as well as possible wilderness areas.

Rey said that as issues like these are discovered, changes may be made to the list of what ultimately will be offered for sale.

“We have removed some tracts from the national list and added others,” Rey said. “We will continue to do this until we submit the list to Congress. I’m certain Congress will want to modify it too, perhaps substantially, before they pass it.”

Comments on the proposed sale of Forest Service lands will be accepted until March 30. Send comments by e-mail to: SRS_Land_Sales@fs.fed.us or by facsimile to (202) 205-1604. Comments also can be sent to: USDA Forest Service, SRS Comments, Lands 4S, 1400 Independence Ave., SW., Mailstop 1124, Washington, DC 20250-0003.

To find out what lands may be listed for sale, go to: www.fs.fed.us/land/staff/rural_schools.shtml

Independent Record



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