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States Leery Of Taking Over Federal Lands Some Officials Worry About Higher Expenses, Reduced Access

Sun., Nov. 26, 1995, midnight

Forest Service officials say six million board-feet of green trees wait to be cut in Colville National Forest.

But no loggers are bidding. To them, half of the trees don’t exist. Their scientists peg the harvest at three million.

The issue goes beyond the Colville to all federal forests. To some, the dispute is a sign of the federal government’s ineffectiveness.

Some Western congressmen want to give the land to the states, saying the states can manage the lands for less, generating more profits and trimming red tape.

Despite the clamor for states’ rights, Northwest states don’t want the gift; nor do the counties; nor even some industries. Assuming command of federal land, they say, could cause state management costs to rise, county revenues to fall, environmental laws to lag and timber competition to tighten.

Still, Western congressmen are pursuing several plans to disperse federal lands. For example:

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, held hearings on restructuring the Forest Service. Suggestions focused on transferring land to states.

The House and Senate are considering bills to let states control Bureau of Land Management land.

Senate legislation would set up a panel like the base closure commission to get rid of federal land.

These efforts appear unlikely to succeed this year. But the movement could command attention in 1996.

Time for change

Land transfer supporters say the switch would increase efficiency.

In the past 90 years, the Forest Service expanded from 1,000 to 37,000 full-time employees. In Washington state, its annual payroll is nearly $73 million.

“We have seen this growth of bureaucracy that in many cases, by its very size, encumbers its ability to make decisions,” said Craig.

“They need to be decentralized,” added Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane. “If there is all that experience, and they are so good at what they do, then we would have a better record of environmental preservation and forest health.”

Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas acknowledged his agency is entangled in a web of laws and regulations. But he and others dispute the benefits of state control.

“It would be far more complex and difficult than people suppose,” Thomas said.

The state burden

State and federal lands comprise almost half of Washington’s 42 million acres. Of this, 9.1 million acres are Forest Service lands and 2.9 million acres are state Department of Natural Resources lands.

If federal lands are given to states, Washington forests could quadruple.

“Anything’s manageable, but we would have to staff up,” said Jennifer Belcher, state lands commissioner.

The DNR employs 1,150 people for forests and aquatic areas. The Forest Service has 1,476 permanent and 850 temporary workers in the state.

Any plan to shift land to the state would have to reconcile those two work forces. Whether the state could manage former federal lands for profit depends on which regions the state would get, Belcher said.

Flat-land forests with rich soil could boost timber sales. But trees in inaccessible places could be more hassle than they’re worth, she said.

Land transfers also raise questions about fire protection. Last year, in one the busiest firefighting years on record, the federal government spent more than $200 million fighting Washington forest fires. The state paid about $20 million.

“If we assume responsibility of federal forests, who would pay the bill?” Belcher asked.

An education boon

In Washington, state forests are managed as “trust lands,” and revenue must go to residents - for school construction, universities, prisons, roads, libraries.

For the fiscal year ending in June, trust lands raised $226 million; more than half went to school construction.

If federal lands were given to states, it could be a boon for schools.

In recent years, the Spokane School District was one of the state’s biggest beneficiaries.

Since passing a 1992 bond issue, the district has received $14.2 million in state money to help build an addition for Shadle Park High, a new middle school and three new elementaries.

But because Spokane receives money, other school districts are squeezed from the cash flow. Each year, between $50 million and $70 million of eligible projects are denied because of money shortages, said Mike Roberts of the superintendent for public instruction’s office.

The state usually adds about $100 million annually from general tax revenues to school construction.

If Washington gets more trust lands from the federal government, schools could get money and the general fund might be tapped less.

County losses

Washington’s 39 counties get about $30 million annually from Forest Service timber sales within their borders. They also receive a couple of million dollars in lieu of taxes on federal land.

If federal lands are given to states, counties might not collect this share, said Bill Vogler of the Washington State Association of Counties.

The impact varies. Spokane County and 11 other non-logging counties get no timber money and minimal payments for federal lands.

Spokane County, for example, received $1,282 from the Bureau of Land Management last year, and $434 from grazing fees. The Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, paid the county about $12,500.

State forests also provide money to counties - last year, about $52 million. But once again, only counties with public forests receive money.

If federal lands are added to Washington’s rolls, the Legislature could dedicate some of those profits to all counties.

Environmental questions

Federal-to-state land transfers spark outrage among some.

“The prospect of turning federal lands back to the states is just a nightmare of instability,” said Jerry Gorsline of the Washington Environmental Council.

State land transfers could create 50 sets of rules, each stopping at state lines - even when forests don’t. That could lead to confusion about how to apply federal and state laws.

The federal government, for example, requires loggers to leave a 300-foot wooded buffer around waterways to guard against erosion.

Washington requires a minimum buffer of 25 feet. Most private landowners leave 50 feet, and the state leaves more, Belcher said.

Environmentalists fear weaker rules would prevail if lands were transferred. Belcher acknowledged they might, but added the state is unlikely to sell former federal lands to loggers.

Yet even in state hands, some fear tourists would be kept away from former federal forests. Profits would come first, causing user fees to rise for activities such as camping, fishing and cross-country skiing.

That goes against the grain of this country, some say.

“These are federal lands. … They’re not for sale or giving away,” said Carl Ross, co-director of Save America’s Forests, in Washington, D.C.

“The federal lands are held in trust by all the American people, for all of us to share with each other and the future generations of the world.”


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