Forest Service officials and Western lawmakers battled Tuesday over an administration proposal that would sell national forest lands to help pay for a rural schools program, as the vital 30-day public comment period began.
WASHINGTON Forest Service officials and Western lawmakers battled Tuesday over an administration proposal that would sell national forest lands to help pay for a rural schools program, as the vital 30-day public comment period began.
Agriculture Under Secretary Mark Rey defended the program but faced skeptical questions from senators of both parties during testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Congress must approve the proposal before any land could be sold.
President Bush's 2007 budget proposed to fund payments over five years to counties under the Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act by selling off up to $800 million worth of National Forest System lands.
The act, designed to provide transitional assistance to rural counties affected by declining revenue from timber harvests on federal lands, is set to expire at the end of this year unless Congress renews it.
The Forest Service has identified 300,000 acres of land that could be offered for sale, although Rey said only about 175,000 acres would probably be needed to raise enough money.
In Montana, 13,948 acres are potentially for sale in the Beaverhead, Bitterroot, Custer, Deerlodge, Flathead, Gallatin, Helena, Kootenai, Lewis and Clark and Lolo forests.
In Wyoming, 17,619 acres are potentially for sale in the Black Hills, Medicine Bow and Bridger-Teton forests and the Thunder Basin National Grassland.
Forest Service officials said they had posted detailed maps of every parcel on its Web site Tuesday so the public could examine them and make comments, but technical glitches plagued the site and the maps could not be seen for much of the day.
The Forest Service also on Tuesday published a notice in the Federal Register seeking comments until March 30. Rey said the agency will rework the suggested list of parcels for sale after the comment period, before presenting it to Congress.
Montana and Wyoming members of Congress support the Rural Schools Act and want it to be renewed, but they generally say a different funding source must be found.
Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., has called the land-sales proposal "dead in the water." Asked about it Tuesday, he replied, "I'm opposed to it. That's it." Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., has been urging Montanans to unite to fight the proposal, and Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., objected to the land sales in a letter to Bush last week.
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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News