For sale: 26,000 Idaho acres
FSBO: 309,421 acres of prime undeveloped forest land. Includes trails, campgrounds and sacred sites. Pristine views. Massive debt forces fast sale.
All satire aside, details on the largest sale of national forest in decades were announced Friday, including about 26,000 acres in Idaho and 7,500 acres in Washington. The Bush administration is proposing the sale to help reduce budget cuts for rural schools and roads.
Included in the sale are prime recreation sites near Coeur d’Alene, including the entire English Point trail network and Mokins Bay campground along Hayden Lake. The proposal also includes 160 mountainous acres near the St. Joe River once used by Indian tribes for sacred vision quests.
Local Forest Service employees said they had been directed not to comment on the proposal, but all expressed surprise at the properties included. Perhaps the biggest shock was the inclusion of 360 acres of developed trails at Hayden Lake’s English Point. The area is about 15 minutes from Coeur d’Alene and is a popular spot for hikers, skiers and horseback riders, said retired Brig. Gen. Clyde Denniston, who owns land nearby.
“I’m really surprised it would be put up for sale,” said Denniston, former commander of Fairchild Air Force Base. “That’s a beautiful piece of land. It gets a lot of public use – it’s not like it’s raw land somewhere out in the boondocks.”
In Colville National Forest, several large tracts are being considered for sale in the Bald Peak area north of Republic, Wash., as well as about 500 acres near Eagle Mountain northeast of Chewelah. The Forest Service has supplied only legal descriptions of the parcels, but the agency will release digitized maps by the end of the month. When the maps are released, the agency will take 30 days of public comment.
The vast majority of the tracts are isolated parcels of national forest that are expensive to manage, according to Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who spoke to reporters Friday in a conference call.
“These are not the crown jewels we’re talking about,” Rey said. “This is a reasonable proposal to take a small fraction of a percentage of national land, which is the least necessary, and use it for those in need.”
California stands to have 85,000 acres of national forest sold. Idaho comes in second in terms of acreage, with more than 11,000 acres – about 17 square miles – of the Panhandle making the sale list. If approved, the land would be appraised and put on the market.
The Bush administration hopes to raise as muich as $1 billion through the program, which it will use to help wean rural counties off the so-called Craig-Wyden “county payments” law over the next five years. The program has been in place since 2000 to help communities with timber-based economies weather large scale decreases in logging on national forest land.
The program sent $41.8 million to Washington last year and $21 million to Idaho.
Many Western lawmakers, sportsmen groups and environmentalists are reacting with outrage to the land sale and phasing-out of the Craig-Wyden payments. Some have compared the sale with a farmer eating his supply of seed corn.
Rey rejected such comparisons, saying the money was needed to help rural counties fund education and transportation projects. About $4 million last year went to Shoshone County in North Idaho. Nearly $1 million went to Ferry County in northeast Washington.
“I don’t think assuring the education of schoolchildren is an ephemeral purpose,” Rey said.
Critics say even isolated parcels of national forest are valuable. The Forest Service often uses the tracts in land swaps to secure wildlife habitat. Surrounded by private land, the acreage also provides recreation opportunities for some communities.
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, has not had a chance to evaluate the list of parcels, said spokesman Mike Tracy. “He obviously has concerns. … He’s never been real supportive of the wholesale sale of public lands, but he does look at individual projects on a case-by-case basis.”
Idaho Congressman and governor-hopeful Butch Otter issued a statement saying, “I do not believe the president’s proposal will be well-received in Congress.” Last month, the Republican representative came under fire for co-sponsoring a plan to sell public land to pay for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. Otter later reversed his support and apologized to state residents.
Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, said certain tracts could be taken off the sale list, depending on public comment. Ultimately, only 200,000 acres will likely be put up for sale, he said, amounting to less than 1 percent of 193 million acres of national forest and grassland. Rey also pointed out the agency acquires about 100,000 acres of new land annually.