Budget Crunch Pits Forests Against Schools

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The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service plan to sell tens of thousands of acres of federal land to raise money for a program that supports small, rural schools. The plan isn't popular with environmentalists, but officials are having difficulty finding another way to support the schools.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The Bush administration wants to sell tens of thousands of acres of federal land and use the proceeds to benefit rural counties and to reduce the deficit.

But as NPR's Jeff Brady reports, Congress is giving the proposal a cold reception. And environmentalists have made defeating it a top priority.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

In many Western counties, vital public services depended on logging. The federal government shares the money it earns from selling trees on public land with counties. But when timber sales ground to a halt in the 1990s, a lot of counties were left with big holes in their budget.

Six years ago Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Self-Determination Act. It refilled those holes with a billion and a half dollars over the last four years.

(Soundbite of children)

BRADY: These fourth graders, playing a math game in Ashland, Oregon, have benefited from the act, as have schools all over the West. Nearly 70 percent of the $400 million paid out last year went to California, Oregon and Washington. The money also pays for police, and county road departments. Mike McArthur heads the Association of Oregon Counties.

Mr. MIKE MCARTHUR (Association of Oregon Counties): Some counties in Oregon have as much as 60 to 70 percent of their revenue coming from this act.

BRADY: Now the act is about to expire. McArthur's members and the Bush administration want to reauthorize it, but the administration says it won't pay for it out of the general fund anymore. Dave Tenny is a Deputy Undersecretary in the Agriculture Department.

Mr. DAVE TENNY (Department of Agriculture): Well now, obviously, we don't have surpluses and so under the pay as you go rules of the budget, you have to come up with some means of paying for it.

BRADY: The administration wants to sell a small fraction of the millions of acres of federal land to fund the program. The Forest Service has put together a list of isolated parcels that can be expensive to manage. If Congress approves the plan, the least controversial parcels that will fetch the most money will go on the auction block.

Mr. KEN MIDKIFF (Sierra Club, Ozark Chapter, Missouri): It's a really stupid idea.

BRADY: Ken Midkiff is with the Ozark Chapter of the Sierra Club in Missouri. He's especially sore over the proposal, because the list in Missouri contains more acres than Oregon. But the Show Me state wouldn't see much of the money. Midkiff says selling land to pay for a government program would set a bad precedent. Dave Alberswerth with the Wilderness Society agrees.

Mr. DAVE ALBERSWERTH (Wilderness Society): It's in essence analogous to if you had piled up a huge credit card debt, your solution to the problem is to sell your house.

BRADY: Alberswerth says the Forest Service proposal is bad enough, but the administration also wants to tap into money the Bureau of Land Management earns from selling property. Under that proposal, 70 percent of the proceeds would go directly into the Federal Treasury to offset the deficit.

In the past, that money was used to buy more land for things like endangered species recovery or recreation. Deputy Undersecretary Dave Tenny says that the administration expected opposition, but he says this is just a starting point.

Mr. TENNY: Typically in a discussion or negotiation, when one party puts a proposal on the table, another party would offer counterproposal. I think that's the way this is probably going to proceed.

BRADY: During the recent congressional hearing, Oregon Senator Ron Whiten did suggest another way to pay for the rural schools program: burn forest byproducts and produce electricity. But it's not clear that could raise anywhere near enough money.

That's the only counterproposal that's been made publicly. Dave Alberswerth with the Sierra Club says coming up with alternative solutions isn't his job, it's the administration's.

Mr. ALBERSWERTH: They're responsible for the federal budget, they're responsible for the jam we've gotten ourselves in. They have now, are hearing from Americans and their representatives in Congress that this isn't going to fly. And so it's incumbent upon them to come up with a viable alternative, I think.

BRADY: But the administration says absent another proposal, it's sticking with this one. Congress will have its say as it considers the budget.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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