by Caroline Pufalt
The Bush Administration has proposed to sell National Forest land to make up for an expected budget shortfall in rural school funding. There are several reasons to oppose this project. From the Sierra Club’s perspective the most important are environmental ones.
We should be protecting and restoring our public lands, not selling them off to provide a temporary fix to a larger budget problem. Public lands, especially forests, provide many environmental “services”. Those services help people directly and indirectly in the form of watershed protection, clean air and recreation opportunities . And of course forests provide needed habitat for wildlife, especially endangered species habitat, and overall biological diversity.
With our growing, sprawling population encroaching on open space, we need to protect all the public land we can. Public lands are the heritage we enjoy because those before us were good stewards. Our responsibility is to leave it, well cared for, to our children. Currently approximately 5% of Missouri is public land ( federal, state and local combined). We should be protecting, even growing that segment, not shrinking it.
The Forest Service claims that the lands up for sale are fragmented, inaccessible or isolated parcels. That is not always the case. Sierrans in Missouri identified two tracks in Boone county that are heavily used by local recreationists. Some MTNF parcels are also along the Little Piney and Eleven Point rivers.
Although no segments within designated Wilderness areas are for sale, there is no prohibition on sales of parcels next to protected areas. In northern California, for example, some sale tracts border state protected wild lands. Also, federal lands, even if fragmented from other federal tracts, may provide important habitat connectors and corridors. The Forest Service views these lands as fragmented, but the agency apparently has not assessed their environmental value.
The Forest Service has always had a program designed to swap lands or even sell lands in order to improve federal land ownership pattern or to obtain desirable parcels. But that is a slower, site specific procedure in which options can be carefully weighed. Furthermore, such action usually does not result in a net loss to public lands.
But Bush’s current plan is anything but usual. The administration wants to sell over 300,000 acres of National Forest and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. BLM lands are western lands are more likely to be grasslands or desert with less forested acres. There are no BLM lands in Missouri. Of the 300,000 acre total up for sale, about 21,500 acres are in Missouri.
The Forest Service’s official comment deadline was originally March 30. However, the deadline has now been extended to May 1. The public has had a hard time determining just what specifically is for sale. The agency website based maps and charts have been error prone. Many forests parcels listed on the website , including several for the MTNF, have been changed. No hard copy maps are available from the Forest Service.
The Budget Battle Behind this Boondoggle The Bush administration says it wants to sell National Forest land in order to gain money for rural schools. Although we, in the Sierra Club, look at this issue primarily from an environmental and public access perspective, it is important also to understand some of the economic issues behind this scheme. The Bush administration plans to use part of the revenue from these sales to directly fund some rural school districts in counties with federal public lands.
First, here is a brief background on the economics of federal lands in rural counties Since the early 1900s rural schools benefited from what was called “payments in lieu of taxes”. Such payments were based on the acreage of federal land in school district counties. Eventually that payment formula would also be based on the amount of timber commodities coming from National Forests. In the pacific northwest, in the 1970s-1980s, funds based on the excessive logging in the area produced significantly increased funds to the counties.
But by the mid 1980s, over logging in the Pacific Northwest was evident. A high level of commercial logging produced greater payments to school districts but the cutting rate was unsustainable. Eventually for a variety of reasons the Forest Service logging decreased in the 1990s. But some schools which had become dependent on the higher revenue.
In response Congress passed a bill in 2000 to supplement rural school districts. Again the formula is a bit complicated. Part of the funds came from forest related restoration projects, but a portion of this relief in the 2000 law was paid from general federal revenue.
Now in 2006 that school supplement program, officially called the Secure Rural School and Community Self Determination act of 2000, is up for renewal and re-funding. Of course our federal budget is a disaster for reasons we need not discuss here. The Bush administration cannot foresee using general revenue for rural schools. Thus, the current scheme is to sell off federal lands to fund a renewal of the supplement.
Clearly this land sale is not a sustainable source of funding. Furthermore, some dissatisfaction with this plan has also come from the fact that distribution of funds does not parallel the locations of the sales. Most money from Missouri sales would not stay in Missouri for Missouri schools. The overwhelming majority of the funds would go to schools in the northwest.
Funding public schools, rural and otherwise, is a serious concern. Students deserve stable funding and good schools. Unsustainable logging or unsustainable public land sales are not good options. We should find a fair way to fund education, but selling off our public lands does not fit that bill.