DUNCAN MANSFIELD Associated Press Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. The Bush administration’s plan to sell national forest lands to help pay for rural schools is drawing widespread opposition and suffering legislative setbacks, but the administration isn’t backing off. The administration wants to raise $800 million for the Secure Rural Schools program for another five years by selling 300,000 forested acres in 35 states. The administration’s plan was seen as virtually dead after the Senate Appropriations Committee, following the lead of its House counterpart months before, refused last week to include the proposal in a $26 billion interior appropriations bill. But Dan Jiron, Washington spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, contends the obituary is premature. “What you have heard isn’t an indication of anything at this point,” he said Thursday. Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, told The Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston, S. C., two weeks ago the proposal has drawn more than 130,000 comments. He said except for a few real estate agents, most were opposed.
But Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist, defended the plan as a way to help counties pay for schools and roads when large portions of their property tax base are tied up in national forest lands and timber sales that normally subsidize them are slipping. Rey said if the plan failed this year, he would be back next year with an alternative. Meanwhile, Jiron said the administration will press its case this year in Congress before committees with direct oversight of the rural schools program. “I don’t like to get into fights with people in this administration, but to me (this) is arrogant,” said Tennessee Rep. Zach Wamp, a Republican on the House Appropriations Committee whose district includes large sections of the Cherokee National Forest. “Congress has a role here. This is not the executive branch rules everything,” he said. Wamp said opposition is strong and bipartisan to the land sales, though there is support for the rural schools program. “We are all for finding ways to pay for it, but we are all against selling public land to do it,” he said.
While the bulk of the land proposed for sale is in Western states, forests in the South also are affected. And the impact might be greater on Southern Appalachia because it has less national forest to begin with, said David Carr with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, Va. “Under this plan, roughly 10,000 acres was being proposed for sale in North Carolina and that same amount was being proposed for sale in Oregon. But Oregon has 15 times more national forest than North Carolina,” he said. “Because recreation demand and the use of these national forests continues to go up, we should be adding to the base, not subtracting it.” Matt Mackowiak, a spokesman for Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who chairs the Senate Appropriations interior subcommittee, said, “This is just one of those things that is put in the budget that doesn’t have any momentum. People think it is a bad idea from the start.”