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June 01, 2005

Revenue Enhancement or Selling the Public Estate?

A May 3rd Albuquerque Tribune editorial, "Forest plan like selling off parts of family farm" begins with this warning:

Any time public officials suggest selling off parts of the public estate in order to balance the books, be suspicious.

Last month, in the latest controversy in the lively debate over how to save our national forests, the Bush administration announced plans to seek congressional authorization to sell off hundreds of U.S. Forest Service buildings and acres of land under the guise of shoring up the agency's sinking budget.
The editorial concludes,
The Bush administration idea, which sounds a bit like family farmers who are forced to sell off bits and pieces of land to sustain deficit operations, simply isn't sustainable.

Forest Service budget officials project potential property sales revenues of $175 million over 10 years by privatizing 40,000 individual federal forest properties. Then what?

There probably is merit in selling off some additional forest surplus properties, but those should be carefully identified and sold only after extensive public review and comment. This is to ensure that the objective really is selling off unnecessary, costly and nonintegral properties - not generating replacement budget revenue by selling off the public commons.

When it comes to the nation's public forests and national parks, Americans have been rather generous, insightful and progressive in funding the acquisition and protection of vast tracts for their beauty, their commercial or recreational value and their ecological importance.

Without an extensive national public debate, no administration or Congress should be allowed to arbitrarily alter that bargain.

A May 31st LA Times article adds this,

Forest Service May Sell Some Staff Facilities
The agency proposes to put 20% or more of its buildings on the auction block to raise funds for new construction and deferred maintenance.
By Bettina Boxall
Times Staff Writer
May 31, 2005

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Wrestling with a long inadequate maintenance budget and facing the prospect of more funding cuts, the U.S. Forest Service is proposing to sell a fifth or more of its staff buildings across the country, including hundreds in California.

A Bush administration plan would allow the Forest Service to go into the real estate business, auctioning staff facilities and the land they sit on to raise cash for upkeep and the construction of new buildings.

Ranger stations, warehouses, residences and remote work centers could be sold under the program, which must be approved by Congress.

Under the heading "Hot Sales!" a government website this spring showcased several Forest Service properties auctioned under a pilot program. Among them were two unused houses in Sierra Madre sold by the Angeles National Forest in Southern California for nearly $1.7 million.

North of Lake Tahoe, Truckee district ranger Joanne Roubique hopes to raise the millions needed for a new ranger complex by selling an old Tahoe National Forest compound that sits on 82 pricey acres next to Truckee's downtown.

Forest Service officials say that nationwide the sales would help them chip away at a $1.2-billion building maintenance backlog by disposing of rundown property and generating cash for new projects. They want to get rid of facilities that are surplus, in bad shape or in the wrong place, but, they stress, forest land itself is not going on the market.

"I think it would be a very bad thing if we were talking about selling national forest lands, and I would be completely against that," said Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth. "From my perspective, these are sites — in many places, in towns — that the public doesn't value their national forest for."

Still, some of the properties are in isolated reaches of national forests, and selling them could create pockets of private development, bringing people, pets and noise to wildlife areas.

Outside the agency, some argue that the Forest Service plan is part of a troubling effort to use the sale of public lands to finance basic government operations.

"They all fit into a pattern where we seem to be disposing of public lands indirectly without telling people what we're doing," said UC Berkeley forest policy professor Sally K. Fairfax. "Part of what they're doing is legitimate, but the other half is what scares me."

She cited two other administration proposals.

One would change a congressional spending formula so that billions of dollars from public land auctions in the fast-developing Las Vegas region would go to the U.S. Treasury to offset the federal deficit. Most of the federal money is now used to finance local park projects and to purchase environmentally valuable private holdings in Nevada.

Another plan under consideration would give the U.S. Bureau of Land Management expanded authority to keep a portion of the income from public land sales outside the Las Vegas area, reducing the amount earmarked for federal land purchases.

At the same time, funding is plummeting for the main federal program that finances land conservation acquisitions by the Forest Service and other federal agencies.

The administration has proposed $147 million for federal land acquisition in 2006, down from more than $400 million four years ago. The House recently voted to virtually eliminate it in budget legislation that now goes to the Senate.

Moreover, the Forest Service sales could erode what traditionally has been one of the agency's primary means of acquiring recreation parcels and wildlife habitat — its land exchange program.

If forest managers can amass cash for long-sought building projects by auctioning a surplus town property, "there would be less chance" they would swap it for back-country acreage, Bosworth acknowledged.

The financial squeeze is all too evident in Truckee, where over the years Roubique estimates she has made 30 to 40 pitches to regional and national Forest Service officials to pay for a new district complex.

"We've had this dream for a while," she said this spring, standing beside a large sketch of the planned compound, which would include ranger offices, barracks and a fire station constructed on a Forest Service parcel next to Interstate 80, a few miles away.

A cluster of ordinary 1930s buildings, the old complex is tucked among towering pines on a rise above downtown. Modern equipment can't fit in the garage bays. To get to forest blazes, the fire crews and seasonal workers who bunk there have to navigate a main street clogged with tourists drawn to Old West storefronts featuring wine, bistro dinners and $300,000 residential lots.

Around Truckee, the Forest Service sale is not controversial. Local conservationists agree that the ranger district needs new facilities and see no reason for the agency to hold on to the 82-acre town parcel, which is expected to fetch $8 million to $10 million.

"For them to sell the existing site and have development on it … would be pretty much infill," said Perry Norris, executive director of the Truckee Donner Land Trust.

But selling the parcel means the Forest Service won't ever use it in the sort of land swap that the Tahoe National Forest has undertaken in the past, when it traded several tracts it owned near Truckee for 11,000 private acres it needed to establish a recreation area around the Boca and Stampede reservoirs.

There is, if anything, more of a need for such land acquisitions now in the 870,000-acre Tahoe forest, which remains checkered with private tracts originally given to the railroads more than a century ago. Once thought too remote for anything but timber production, the parcels are increasingly vulnerable to development.

"In this part of the Sierra, that is the most looming environmental threat," Norris said. "Once those sections get sold off and broken off, you'll never be able to reconfigure it and you'll have what we call rural sprawl in the Sierra."

Roubique is trying to acquire private parcels around another lake west of the Stampede Reservoir, but she says she didn't have much of a choice between selling the Truckee site or trading it. She could let go of the 82 acres only if she got the money to replace the buildings on the land. And the only way she could get the money was to sell.

She won approval for the sale last year when her project was included in a congressionally authorized pilot program that allows the Forest Service to auction a limited number of staff properties around the country and pocket the proceeds for maintenance and new construction.

It is that approach that the administration wants to permanently adopt for the entire national forest system — a move that the Forest Service estimates could reap $125 million to $175 million over the next decade.

As part of the pilot program, the Kootenai National Forest in northwestern Montana earlier this year offered a bunkhouse complex on 78 acres next to a reservoir near the hamlet of Noxon. The parcels went for $850,000.

Under legislation authorizing similar deals in Arizona, the Coconino National Forest put on the auction block 21 acres and a historic ranger compound consisting of some of the oldest buildings in Sedona. Bidding had reached $8.3 million by last week. As in Truckee, Coconino and Angeles forest managers intend to use the proceeds to build new offices in locations they say would better serve the public.

"Construction money is scarce," said Raina Fulton, recreation officer for the Angeles National Forest, which is planning a new complex in Acton for the Santa Clara/Mojave Rivers Ranger District. "We could ask for it, but we probably wouldn't get it."

It could get even scarcer. The president's 2006 budget proposal slashes the Forest Service's capital improvements and maintenance funding by a quarter, to $381 million. The cut would be offset by income from selling "unneeded" Forest Service facilities, according to budget documents.

The recent House appropriations bill restores some of the reduction, but proposed funding remains less than last year's.

In a related move backed by the administration that could further pressure managers to sell property, the Forest Service wants to start charging for office space.

Every staff program, whether it be firefighting, wildlife biology, timber management or a visitor center, would have to dip into its budget to pay a square foot assessment, which would fund building maintenance.

"We believe it improves personal accountability," said Vaughn Stokes, the agency's engineering director. "If you have to pay for [maintenance] year after year from your project funds, you'll think hard about" whether you need the space.

The maintenance fee and sales program proposals would have to be approved by Congress, which may be hesitant to give the Forest Service such carte blanche.

"I think there is some good to come out of a facility sales program," said Republican Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, chairman of the House resources forest subcommittee. "There are surplus structures they shouldn't own anymore."

But, he added, "We don't want to see this become a shell game to sell off assets and drive their current service budget."

His Democratic colleague on the subcommittee, Tom Udall of New Mexico, was more skeptical.

"I think it creates an incentive that could have some very adverse consequences," he said. "If you have agencies which are starved for maintenance funds, and you create the incentive to sell assets to get maintenance funds … they might very well be carrying out transactions that are not the best."

The jury is out. How will the Forest Service, the Administration, and the Congress fare when historians judge the worth of these measures from some future time?

Posted by Dave on June 1, 2005 at 11:37 AM | Permalink


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Posted by: John Rupe

Here's the link to the list of properties for sale. Anyone want to buy a Ranger Station?


John Rupe | Jun 2, 2005 9:51:26 AM

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