Senate says ‘no deal’ to national forest sell-off
A Bush administration plan for a massive selloff of national forest and other public lands appears to be a dead deal.
The land sale was halted late last week in the U.S. Senate when it was kept out of a key spending bill. In May, the U.S. House also rejected the idea, which called for selling some 300,000 acres of national forest, including 26,000 acres in Idaho and 7,500 acres in Washington.
Included in the sale are some prime recreation sites near Coeur d’Alene, including the entire English Point trail network and Mokins Bay campground along the shores of Hayden Lake. Also on the auction block was 160 mountainous acres above the St. Joe River, once used by Indian tribes.
The Bush administration had hopes of raising $800 million through the real estate deal. The money was to be used to help wean rural counties off a federal assistance program that has helped areas hit by the collapse of logging on Forest Service land. The president’s 2007 budget proposal also contained a provision that would have sold off tracts managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, with 70 percent of the proceeds used to pay down the national debt.
Both the land sale and BLM sell-off proposals are now “dead in the water,” declared Matt Mackowiak, spokesman for Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont. Burns chairs the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, which did not include the measures in a key spending bill passed late last week to pay for the management of public lands next year.
“If there’s any one person to make sure this doesn’t go forward, it’s Sen. Burns,” Mackowiak said.
The only chance for the sale to go forward would be if a member of Congress were to sponsor the sale in a stand-alone bill, said Mackowiak, who put such odds at “none.”
The administration is still clinging to the idea of the land sale, which was the brainchild of Mark Rey, whose job as agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and environment puts him as the White House’s chief steward for public lands. Rey could not be reached for comment Monday. His spokesman, Dan Jiron, said the proposal remains the only one on the table.
“We’ll wait and see,” Jiron said, when asked about last week’s failure of the measure to be approved in the Senate. “This is an important step, but not the final step.”
The land sale remains the only option being considered by the Bush administration to fund the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which sends tens of millions of dollars to rural counties across the West and is set to expire at the end of the year. This Craig-Wyden program provided $42 million to ailing rural economies in Washington last year and $21 million to Idaho.
Dan Whiting, a spokesman for Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said there’s been no viable alternative funding sources proposed for the program. “We’re coming up dry,” Whiting said.
The Craig-Wyden program has widespread support across the West. Opponents of the land sale, however, say they are happy to see the prospects wither for a massive federal real estate deal to fund the program.
“We are extremely encouraged that the Senate and House both eliminated the proposal,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer, with the Idaho Conservation League. Oppenheimer said opposition from both of Idaho’s senators was key in derailing the sell-off.
The Bush administration said the sale was focused on selling off smaller, isolated tracts of public lands that were difficult to manage and separated from the larger bodies of national forest. These are some of the very tracts that are most important to preserve, Oppenheimer said.
“These lands are important protecting public access, clean water, wildlife habitat and protecting against uncontrolled growth,” he said.
One such tract, the English Point trail network, is about 20 minutes north of downtown Coeur d’Alene and is criss-crossed by forest paths constructed by years of volunteer labor. Hayden resident Gerry House, whose ancestors homesteaded the area, was thrilled by the news it would be kept open for the public.
“That’s great news
!” House said when told of the measure being blocked by the Senate. House said he has known of few other issues that have angered North Idaho residents as much.
“I don’t know what they were thinking,” House said of the administration proposal. “It was the wrong thing to do.”