February 18, 2006



Today’s acronym is brought to you by the United States Department of Agriculture. Normally USFS stands for the United States Forest Service, which has been under the USDA’s aegis since it was transferred by Congress from the Department of the Interior (aka the Department of Everything Else) under Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency in 1905.

But every now and then, based usually on the whim of political expediency or under the guise of best management practices, it seems that USFS actually stands for United States For Sale. The Bush administration's proposal to sell our national forests to pay for rural schools and roads would be devastating to say the least. It calls for the sale of 309,121 acres among 2,930 parcels in 34 states to raise $800 million over the next five years. The cause for this funding need is stated as a decline in timber sales. Rural schools had been guaranteed funds in the Secure Rural Schools Act of 2000, of which some came from timber. The Bureau of Land Management also is working on selling off federal lands to raise about $182 million during the next five years.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs U.S. forest policy, begins with the lame deflection that fewer than 200,000 of the 309,000 acres identified are likely to be sold. He then rationalizes the land sale by pointing to acquisition that in recent years has boosted the USFS holdings by two million acres. That is good Mr. Rey, let’s keep going in that direction ALL the time. Since Teddy Roosevelt’s time our forest reserves have tripled. Laudable yes, but let’s remember that it’s taken place over a century.

Rey says the parcels to be sold are "isolated (and) expensive to manage.” Just how did it get this way? Well, perhaps they were purchased with the typical prescience of real estate values, the intent always having been to sell them off when the budget was strapped. Still, selling public land has short term positive and long term negative economic impacts. But Americans should oppose this not so much for the asset liquidation aspect of the proposal (which casts a shadow upon USFS management philosophy) but for how it would head the Forest Service in the opposite direction of what Americans want. What should concern every altruistic conservationist is the USDA’s assessment that these parcels, according to Rey, “no longer meet the needs of the 193 million-acre national forest system.”

What exactly are the needs of the national forest system? The Forest Service motto is "Caring for the Land and Serving People," and while that is certainly subject to wide interpretation it should be noted that since 1905 the desires of the people have shifted toward preservation and recreation and away from the commercial management philosophy of the early Forest Service. In a recent USFS poll respondents indicated the following forest use issues were important to them:

Protect streams and other sources of clean water (95%)
Maintain National Forests for future generations (94%)
Protect habitat for wildlife and fish (89%)
Use and manage to leave forests natural in appearance (87%)
Protect rare and endangered species (86%)
Provide information and education about forests (80%)
Plant and manage for an abundant timber supply (79%)
Provide quiet, natural places for personal renewal (76%)
Provide access, services and information for recreation (74%)
Provide roads, accommodations and services to support local tourism businesses (57%)
Provide permits for grazing livestock (52%)
Produce raw materials to support local industries (47%)

Great Smoky Mountains view from Tsali (Nantahala National Forest)

California would lose the most acreage (85,000) of any state under the plan. Such a loss of public, quasi-protected land in an already crowded state is unconscionable to say the least. Idaho comes in second with 25,000 acres and 21,000 acres in Colorado. The parcels range in size from less than an acre to about 900 acres in Virginia. How is 900 acres “isolated?”

Thankfully many politicians have decried the plan, saying we can't afford to lose more public land, particularly in crowded metropolitan areas.

"The idea that you would start selling off parcels and have people build residences and industrial uses in areas that aren't getting enough protection right now is just wrong," said Alan Sanders of the Los Padres, California Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) said the proposal is a terrible idea based on a misguided sense of priorities. "California's remaining wildlands are diminishing at a rapid rate, and we need, at the very least, to keep what we have, not to sell them off to the highest bidder," she said in a statement.

U.S. Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana) is also against the proposal, and told the Helena Independent Register that he has co-sponsored legislation that would reauthorize and fully fund the Secure Rural Schools program without selling off our public lands. Montana has nearly 14,000 acres of its National Forests on the for sale list.

As for what’s on the list in the South:

Alabama - 3,220 acres
Georgia - 4,522 acres
North Carolina - 9,828 acres
South Carolina - 4,665 acres
Tennessee - 2,996 acres

For a five state total of 25,231 acres

Here's a thought: we could sell OUR timber up near reasonable market prices and put the increased revenue toward retraining loggers for other good jobs in our expanding global economy (or they could work for the Border Patrol). Then we would not need to sell off OUR land for an average price of $320 an acre like the Bureau of Land Management did with 13,160 acres from 2000 to 2004 (source: The Wilderness Society).

Even better, let's gut NASA and its $700 million Pluto space probes. Three of those babies and we'd have enough for the schools, the roads AND the real estate to connect most of the "isolated, expensive to manage" land.

Check out the full list of your potential property sales on the USFS Lands and Realty Management page.

This rant made possible by a contribution from the Associated Press

I'm with you all the way except for gutting NASA. There's plenty of pork in government that could be cut first. How about Murdock's tax cut?
Please read this entire page before scuttling NASA.

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