A Bush administration proposal to sell 300,000 acres of national forest appears to have hit a dead end.
Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, whose Senate subcommittee would have to approve the idea, announced Tuesday that he opposes the sale, which includes 26,000 acres in Idaho and 7,500 acres of public land in Washington.
“It’s bad policy to sell land to fund programs,” said Craig’s spokesman, Dan Whiting. “That’s not a road he wants to go down. … I don’t really see it going anywhere in Congress.”
The Bush administration is not willing to give in, however, and continues to push the land sale as the only available option for raising $800 million for rural schools and road maintenance. Mark Rey, a former Craig staffer who now serves as the president’s point man for forest issues as the Agriculture Department undersecretary, said if the land sales are nixed, then the school and road funding program would also be killed.
“So far nobody has come up with an alternative funding source,” Rey said in a telephone interview Tuesday from his office in Washington, D.C. “Until we start seeing alternatives, there’s really no debate. … We’re not willing to rule out land sales prematurely.”
Opposition has been building in recent weeks to the land sale. Last week, members of the overwhelmingly Republican Idaho Senate voted 34-1 to oppose the plan. Senators from across the West have also come out against the idea, including conservative Montana Republican Conrad Burns, who recently declared it “dead in the water.”
But until Tuesday there’s been little reaction from Larry Craig, also a Republican. As chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, Craig’s support is critical for the measure, which was announced early last month as part of the Bush administration’s 2007 budget. But Craig has also been the leading proponent of the county payments program, which he launched in 2000 along with Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat.
The so-called Craig-Wyden program has sent hundreds of millions of dollars to ailing rural economies across the West, including $42 million to Washington last year and $21 million to Idaho. The money was meant to help county economies recover after the collapse of the Forest Service timber sale program in the 1990s.
Funding for the program expires this year. Because of complicated federal budget laws, a new funding source must come from what’s known as a mandatory account – a program that must be funded in full each year, Rey explained. There are few mandatory accounts to raid within the Agriculture or Interior departments, he said. Food stamps is one such program.
“Not surprisingly, there wasn’t a great deal of support to cut the food stamps program,” Rey said.
The Bush administration also looked at speeding up gas and oil drilling permit processing, as well as using money raised by energy drilled out of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Neither of the ideas would fulfill the requirements of having the money available by next year, Rey said.
Selling isolated tracts of national forest appears to be the only way to continue the Craig-Wyden program, Rey said. Eventually, the program was meant to be phased out. With timber sales on national forest lands beginning to increase – they are again at levels similar to the early 1970s – Rey said he doesn’t expect to see additional land sales needed.
“We’re not looking at this as the first in a series of land sales,” Rey said. “We’re not starting down a road of selling some land now and more land in five years.”
Selling any public land doesn’t sit well with many in the West, said John Freemuth, senior fellow at the Andrus Center for Public Policy and professor of political science at Boise State University. “The American public has long rejected the notion of large-scale transfers or selling of public land,” he said.
The Andrus Center’s research on the Craig-Wyden program shows it to be one of the most popular, effective pieces of recent legislation in the West, Freemuth said. One particularly successful aspect of the program has been the creation of citizen advisory committees, which direct funds for public land improvement projects.
“It’s such a tragedy this legislation is being held hostage, that it has to be funded through federal land sales,” Freemuth said.
Tuesday morning, about 20 North Idaho residents held a rally in the parking lot of English Point, one such tract being considered for sale. The event was organized by the Idaho Conservation League. English Point includes 360 acres of forest overlooking Hayden Lake and has become a popular hiking area for residents of Kootenai County.
“This is our Central Park,” explained Del Kerr, a local developer who has volunteered to help build trails at the site.
Gerry House, whose career with the Forest Service stretched from the Eisenhower to the Clinton administrations, said he was shocked to see his former employer considering selling land. A guiding principle of the agency has been to preserve land for future generations, especially during this time of rapid development.
“It’s time to draw a line in the sand and say ‘Heck no!’ ” House said.
House’s great-grandparents, who were from England, homesteaded the area, giving it the name English Point.
Coeur d’Alene River District Ranger Randy Swick said the decision to include English Point in the sale list was not made locally.
“We were a little surprised it was still being looked at,” Swick said.
Swick also said the tract was especially valuable to preserve as public land as acreage on all sides was being turned into housing developments. Just down the road from English Point is a hillside jutted with fresh stumps. The old pines had been cut to make way for a bigger, straighter road to serve new subdivisions.
Some of those attending the rally wondered if including English Point on the sale list was a political ploy. The popular tract could be pulled off the final sale list, making the selloff seem less severe. When Mark Rey was told of this theory, he scoffed at it.
“I’m not a big fan of straw men,” he said. “Straw men catch fire pretty easily, then you have to spend your time putting out fires.”