Thousands of acres of national forest could be sold to help offset federal budget cuts, according to a Bush administration proposal.
The land sale would help ease the pain of even deeper cuts proposed for a federal program that has sent tens of millions of dollars to rural counties across the Inland Northwest.
Funding for the so-called Craig-Wyden “county payments” law would be cut in half and eventually phased out over the next five years, according to the president’s proposed budget. The program sent $41.8 million to Washington last year and $21 million to Idaho, with much of the money going to the states’ most economically depressed areas.
Forest parcels that are “isolated or inefficient to manage” would be considered for possible sale, according to a statement issued Monday afternoon by the U.S. Forest Service. Dave O’Brien, a spokesman for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, said he could offer no specifics on the proposal.
But O’Brien said the Craig-Wyden dollars have been “really helpful and useful” for communities across North Idaho. On Friday, a committee of citizens and local government officials approved the spending of $760,000 this year on forest-related projects across Idaho’s five northern counties, including weed control and new outdoor toilets along Lake Pend Oreille.
According to the Associated Press, up to 170,000 acres of national forest are being considered for sale. This is only a tiny fraction of the 193 million acres of forest and grassland managed by the federal agency, but previous talk of selling public land has provoked widespread outrage.
Last month, Idaho Congressman and governor-hopeful Butch Otter said he was wrong to have supported a separate plan to sell public land to pay for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
The phasing out of the Craig-Wyden county payments program is also sure to provoke anger in the Inland Northwest.
The program, named after its sponsors, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., was launched in 2000 to rescue rural areas from the economic doldrums, after the collapse of the federal timber harvest. Counties historically received a quarter of the value of timber cut on federal lands within their boundaries.
A year ago, Sherry Krulitz, a commissioner from Shoshone County, testified before a U.S. Senate panel on the importance of the bill. “Without the Craig-Wyden safety net, we’d be in big trouble,” she said.
Three-quarters of that county’s acreage is federal land, which is exempt from property taxes. The county received $4 million in 2003, with a third of the money going to schools and much of the rest paying for maintaining the county’s 400-some miles of roads, Krulitz said.
Northeast Washington also receives a considerable portion of its revenues from the program, with Ferry County alone receiving nearly $1 million a year.
Under the administration plan, $800 million for rural schools and other needs would be authorized in a phased reduction over the next five years. There was no dollar figure yet for the 2007 allocation, according to the Associated Press. This year, $380 million was distributed.
Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs U.S. forest policy, called the phase-out proposal painful but necessary in a tight budget year. Rey said the plan was “an extension of a program that was never intended to be permanent.”
Dan Whiting, a spokesman for Craig, said Congress must first approve the president’s budget. “This is just a suggestion,” he said.
A public comment period would accompany any land sale proposed by the Forest Service. Agency officials said that because of ongoing land acquisition, sales likely would not result in a net loss of national forest.
But selling public land to pay for government programs is not a popular idea.
“Selling off the lands where people hunt, fish and recreate – it’s absolutely unacceptable,” said Mike Petersen, director of The Lands Council, of Spokane. “The Bush administration is out to lunch with this.”
Grumbling also came from the Northwest Access Alliance, a group that works to keep forest trails open for motorized recreation.
“We don’t think public lands ought to be sold for public benefit,” said Tom Crimmins, a leader of the group and resident of Hayden, Idaho. “We ought to be harvesting timber and getting that money rather than selling off government lands.”