The Forest Service outlined its plan Friday to sell chunks of National Forest land to help fund legislation assisting rural schools and communities.
Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey told reporters during a press conference that more than 300,000 acres of land across 34 states that could possibly be sold to fund five more years of the Secure Rural School and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000. More than 105,000 of the total acres are tracts of land in the Rocky Mountain Region in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
These are lands that are “isolated and no longer needed to meet the National Forest System needs,”? Rey said.
The sale of the lands was proposed earlier this week in the White House 2007 budget as part of a way to continue funding the Secure Rural School Act, which help stabilize federal money given to rural communities and states. The act was an attempt to compensate rural communities for the dwindling amount they received from timber sales.
This act is due to sunset at the end of this year, so Bush’s budget also proposes to extend it another five years to the tune of about $800 million.
However, the extension of the act comes at a cost – pieces of National Forest are going to be sold to the highest bidder.
Rey explained the list of parcels, which in Montana varied in size from less than an acre to more than 600 acres, was only a preliminary list of land undesirable for the Forest Service to keep.
But some of the parcels are certainly desirable to the public.
On the Bitterroot National Forest one of the parcels recommended is known as the Fred Burr 80. This piece is home of a major trailhead popular with hikers, bikers and horseback riders into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Not to mention the Bitterroot National Forest spent nearly $50,000 on a hazardous fuels reduction project on the 80 acres last year.
But the Fred Burr 80 is completely surrounded by private land and so qualifies for the list, Rey said. The fact that fuels reduction work was completed on the land a reflection of the agency being good stewards of the land, and doesn’t mean they should hold on to it, he said.
Still, selling off land to temporarily fund a program is simply bad resource management, said Montana’s Democratic darling, Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
For him it’s simple Cowboy logic –- if you spend past your means and have to sell land to compensate, then you’ll eventually lose the homestead.
Schweitzer, a multi-generation Montana rancher, said he has seen neighbors do things like this before. The ranchers that fail and have to sell-out, are often the ones driving around the fancy pick-ups and running the newest combine, he said.
“What happened to the federal government is exactly what’s happened to some of those ranch families,” Schweitzer said. “This is just a government living beyond their means.
“That’s a damn poor way to run a ranch and a worse way to run a government,”? he said.
The Secure Rural Schools Act has been valuable to Montana, but that doesn’t mean you sell-off the ranch to keep it going five more years, he said.
“It’s bad management. If you no longer have the resource in the next generation, then what do you do?”? Schweitzer said. “So you say no to selling the first 20 acres, not no to selling the last 40.”?
But the act has been vital to some Montana counties, said Ravalli County Commissioner, Alan Thompson.
More than 70 percent of Ravalli County is Bitterroot National Forest. In the 1960s, about 60 million board feet of timber a year was harvested in the county, Thompson said. The county received 25 percent of what the Forest Service received for the timber.
However, in recent years, the amount of timber harvested off the Bitterroot National Forest has dropped significantly, to about 4 million board feet a year, he said.
The Secure Rural Schools Act allowed the counties to chose a steady payment or the take the normal 25 percent of a dwindling timer program.
Ravalli County chose the steady payment, which translated into about $365,000 per year. A third of that goes to education. The rest went to county roads. If the county chose to get 25 percent of actual timber receipts, they would have received about $28,000 last year, Thompson said.
However, if the Bush proposal goes through, rural counties would receive less and less money each year from the act until 2013, when the payments would be completely phased out, Rey said.
The Forest Service issued four maps on their Website Friday of forests that have land proposed for sale. One of the maps is of the Bitterroot National Forest (Click here for the PDF).
In total the agency has identified more than 12,500 acres in Montana that could qualify to be sold. The Forests in Western Montana have the most to put up for sale: the Kootenai has nearly 5,000 acres, the Lolo and Bitterroot National Forests have about 1,100 acres each, the Flathead has about 3,000 acres. The Custer National Forest in south-central Montana has more than 1,700 acres that qualify.
A final list and complete maps will be released Feb. 28 for a 30-day public comment period.