Senators from both sides of the political aisle are balking at an attempt by the White House to sell as much as 300,000 acres of national forest land to pay for extending what has been a successful program to fund schools in rural, economically distressed regions of 41 states. With the so-called “county payments” law expiring in September, the Bush administration is positioning the land sale as a viable way to keep the funding flowing to pay for rural schools.
But resistance from both Democrats and Republicans concerned about losing public land may sink the proposal altogether. “To propose selling off public lands we will lose forever, in exchange for a program we can pay for by other more prudent means, is simply irresponsible,” Senator Craig Thomas, a Wyoming Republican, told reporters last week. Meanwhile, Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democratic firebrand hailing from Washington State, related, “The Bush administration wants to eliminate a proven, balanced initiative in favor of a public lands fire sale.”
But federal officials defend the plan as a humane way to help otherwise struggling communities get by. And according to Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, the lands proposed for sale are isolated, difficult or expensive to manage, and no longer meet Forest Service needs. “We think this is justified as a one-time transition to help rural schools,” Rey concludes.
The White House has included the national forest land sale plan in its 2007 budget proposal, which Congress is expected to vote on later this month. Yet with so many Republicans against it, political analysts doubt the controversial plan will be included in the final budget as delineated by Congress.