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February 08, 2006

Forest Service and BLM to Sell Off Thousands of Acres

The recently released President's Budget Proposal says the Forest Service and BlM are to Sell Off Thousands of Acres. Here is a related Forest Service News Release. And here is perspective from the Salt Lake Tribune:

Forest and BLM Acreage for Sale?
Robert Gehrke, Salt Lake Tribune, Feb. 8, 2006

WASHINGTON - Tucked amid thousands of pages of President Bush's $2.77 trillion budget is a proposal to sell off tens of thousands of acres of national forests and Bureau of Land Management land.

The two separate proposals are part of an effort to make the agencies operate more efficiently and generate new revenue in tight budget times, agency officials say. Together, they would generate more than $1 billion over five years.

But to environmental groups, it's like eBay for public lands.

"You marry these two up together and what you have is them proposing a billion-dollar privatization program," said Dave Alberswerth, a public lands expert with The Wilderness Society. "When Western residents wake up to the fact that the Bush administration has a . . . scheme to divest the public of its lands, I don't think people are going to like that very much."

The BLM program seeks to sell $30 million of land in the first year, and would grow from there. Over five years, the sales would generate about $260 million, according to budget projections.

Mike Ferguson, budget officer for BLM, said the agency identifies lands through its land-use plans that have little scenic, recreational or mineral value and are hard to manage, often because they are isolated. But they could be of use to some private party.

Congress gave BLM the authority to sell land in 2000, but only those acres that had already been identified as surplus.

The new proposal would change that, and would direct 70 percent of revenues from land sales into the treasury, where it could be used for any federal program. Four percent would go to the states, and the remainder could be used by BLM for things like campground or trail maintenance or weed eradication.

Currently, land sale revenue is used to buy new lands with wildlife habitat or other values. The BLM has about $25 million in its land acquisition fund, revenues from earlier land sales, Ferguson said. In 2005, the BLM sold off 8,409 acres for a total of $16 million.

"We probably don't need to acquire as much additional land as we're disposing of and we have a lot of other needs in terms of managing the lands we do have," said Ferguson. "It's nice to be able to find a revenue stream that will help meet some of the other discretionary programs."

The Forest Service proposal would liquidate up to 200,000 acres of federal forestland - parcels that are deemed impractical or unnecessary to retain - with the anticipated $800 million in proceeds directed to a program to fund rural schools.

Utah schools, for example, received nearly $2 million from the Secure Rural Schools program last year.

The program currently is funded with taxpayer dollars, but by selling the land, that money could be spent elsewhere.

"There could be a lot of hyperbole on a proposal like this," said Forest Service spokesman Dan Jiron. "This proposal . . . is pretty contained to small parcels, anywhere from a fraction of an acre to less than 200 acres. Mid-range would be 10 to 100 acres, disconnected and inefficient to manage."

At the end of the week the Forest Service plans to publish a preliminary list of lands it has identified as being eligible for sale, should Congress approve the program. Jiron could not say what, if any, Utah forest lands would be on the list.

Alberswerth said that, by estimating revenue, the Bush administration is setting a quota and letting deficit reduction drive public lands policy.

"Here's a case where they will have a mandate and a target, a quota of money they have to raise according to this budget from land sales each year," Alberswerth said. "The problem here is that there doesn't seem to be particular rationale [to the sales] other than to raise money."

Ferguson said that is not the case. "It's not that we're going out to look for some certain lands to bring it up to a certain dollar amount," he said.

BLM land sales are rare in Utah, the last one taking place in Vernal several years ago, and it was fairly small, said state BLM spokesman Don Banks. There has been some interest in another sale of some BLM land in Washington County, he said.

In the draft of the BLM's management plan for the Price area, the agency identified dozens of parcels that could be disposed of by the agency, though the number of acres is unclear.

Southern Nevada has been where most of the land-sale action has taken place, with the BLM selling off chunks of land surrounding the Las Vegas area.


BLM program:
Acres to be sold: Unknown
Amount generated: $30 million in first year; about $260 million over five years
Money used for: 70 percent to the federal treasury, 26 percent for BLM projects and 4 percent to states

Forest Service program:
Acres to be sold: 175,000-200,000
Amount generated: $800 million over five years
Money used for: Secure Rural School Act, which sends money to rural schools. Utah received $2 million from the program in 2005, part of $380 million distributed nationally

As an indicator of the largesse of money flows from land sales in the Southern Nevada area, I hear that the Forest Service is now putting finishing touches on a $53 Million visitors center for the Las Vegas-based Spring Mountains National Recreation Area.

And the Rural School Act sales make one wonder just what may come next and where it all may end. Will we hear proposals, once again, to sell public lands to retire the national debt? If so we can once again debate whether it is prudent to sell the "seed corn."

Posted by Dave on February 8, 2006 at 10:43 AM | Permalink


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Posted by: Martin Nie

It is clear that the idea of public lands is still not safe from what conservationist and historian Bernard DeVoto called the “landgrabbers” whom want to privatize our public lands. He kept a watchful eye on them over 50 years ago, saying that there are many ways to skin a cat, and that they would use as many skinning knives as possible to get the job done. After a plan to sell off grazing lands failed in 1947, DeVoto noticed how “the boys” then went to work on the Forest Service: “The idea was to bring it into disrepute, undermine public confidence in it by every imaginable kind of accusation and propaganda, cut down its authority, and get out of its hand the power to regulate…”.

Instead of corporate ranchers, this go round it sometimes seems as though political appointees are utilizing this strategy to “starve the beast,” so privatization seems like the only reasonable and fiscally sound alternative. How else are we going to pay rural communities or provide other basic services, the argument goes, unless we sell off federal lands. The David Stockman approach to forest management perhaps.

Threats posed by privatization are now advanced in increasingly sophisticated and sometimes backdoor ways. The budget proposal isn’t going to make it through Congress. But I hope it serves as a wake-up call. No, the proposal is not to fully privatize our public forests and rangelands, and I fully appreciate how difficult it is to manage some parcels of land. But we must put the proposal into context, as it is simply the latest effort to undermine our public lands heritage (e.g., Mining giveaway, Katrina proposal, wilderness/economic development bills, lopsided exchanges, fee-demo, etc.). There are more constructive ways to consolidate ownership and improve land management. It is my hope that traditional adversaries can unite when it comes to safeguarding our public lands riches, though perhaps continue to disagree on how to spend them.

Martin Nie

Martin Nie | Feb 10, 2006 10:24:53 AM

Posted by: Mike Dechter

Unless legislation clears these sales from NEPA, the selling off of small parcels of land could cost the federal government more than local communities would gain from the resulting revenue stream. A more economical approach would simply be to pay these communities directly.

As it is proposed right now, it seems that 3rd party NEPA contractors, lawyers, developers, and some local communities would be the winners. The tax payer and public lands user would be the big losers.

Mike Dechter | Feb 17, 2006 6:08:21 PM

Posted by: Dave Iverson

An archeologist/cultural anthropologist friend suggested that since the parcels tend to be in the urban/forest fringe, they are often filled with archeological artifacts. This may be a partial confirmation of Mike Dechter's worries..

Dave Iverson | Feb 20, 2006 11:37:31 AM

Posted by: clark

My biggest concern with privitization, particularly in areas on the urban fringe is the enevitable sprawl. It seems to me that the few millions of dollars being made (especially to the state that is taking in a measly 4% of the profits) isn't worth the cost of that kind of developement.

clark | Feb 22, 2006 5:07:42 PM

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