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Bush administration details $1 billion plan for sales of public lands

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration yesterday detailed its proposal to sell more than 300,000 acres of national forests and other public land to help pay for rural schools in 41 states.

The land sales, ranging from less than an acre to more than 1,000 acres, could total more than $1 billion and would be the largest sale of forest land in decades.

Western lawmakers objected, saying the short-term gains would be offset by the loss of public lands. Congress would have to approve the sales, and has rejected similar proposals in recent years.

Forest Service officials say the sales are needed to raise $800 million over the next five years to pay for schools and roads in rural counties hurt by logging cutbacks on federal land. The Bureau of Land Management has said it also plans to sell federal lands to raise an estimated $250 million over five years.

Dave Alberswerth of The Wilderness Society, an environmental advocacy group, said the plan is a billion-dollar boondoggle to privatize treasured public lands to pay for ''tax cuts to the rich."

''This is not going to be politically acceptable to most people," he said.

But Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs forest policy, said the parcels to be sold are isolated, expensive to manage, or no longer meet the needs of the forest system. The administration expects to have to sell only about 200,000 of the 309,000 acres identified yesterday to meet the $800 million goal, he said.

''These are not the crown jewels we are talking about," Rey said in an interview. The public can review the land parcels that are up for sale on the Forest Service's website, Rey said. Maps of just four national forests were posted as of yesterday, but Rey said all the properties should be posted by month's end.

The public will have until late March to comment on the proposed sales.

''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 and achieve an important overarching public purpose," Rey said.

The proposed sell-off would total less than half of 1 percent of the 193 million-acre national forest system. The money would be used for roads, schools, and other needs in rural counties hurt by sharp declines in timber sales in the wake of US forest policy that restricts logging to protect species such as the spotted owl.

A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management, which previously said it will sell 125,000 more acres, said BLM land to be sold would be identified at the local level. The lands are typically part of a checkerboard pattern of small parcels surrounded by suburban or urban areas, Interior officials say, and have been identified as holding little natural, historical, cultural, or energy value.

BLM spokeswoman Celia Boddington said much of the land would be near urban areas with high market value. In recent years, the government has sold parcels for tens of millions of dollars in Nevada, for example, she said. ''Lands formerly remote are now abutting metro areas. That is certainly the case in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah," she said.

Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, said that is precisely the reason the land should not be sold. ''Our hunters, anglers, campers, and other recreational users benefit from -- and depend on -- access to public lands," he said. ''In my view, selling public lands to pay down the deficit would be a shortsighted, ill-advised, and irresponsible shift in federal land-management policy."

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, called the plan ''a terrible idea based on a misguided sense of priorities." Not only is the administration proposing to sell off public lands to help finance the president's budget, the move also won't sufficiently fund the rural schools program, which has helped California and other states, Feinstein said.

Nearly 500 parcels totaling more than 85,000 acres in California are identified for possible sale.

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