Bush proposes sale of public lands for schools | SierraSun.com

Bush proposes sale of public lands for schools

Kara Fox
Sierra Sun

The Bush administration, for the second year in a row, has proposed selling off thousands of acres of national forest land to help fund rural schools and roads.

The proposal, which was part of Bush’s 2007 budget proposed Monday, would offer up 273,806 acres of national forests. California could lose the most acreage, with 65,863 on the chopping block.

Although nearly 1,500 acres proposed for sale are in the Tahoe National Forest, no parcels are located within the Tahoe Basin Management Unit, according to Matt Mathes, U.S. Forest spokesperson.

“It’s not a bad idea to dispose of a lot of them,” Mathes said of the parcels. “Frankly, they are administrative headaches.”

The proposed parcels are in remote locations, difficult to manage or do not meet the needs of the U.S. Forest Service, according to Mark Rey, undersecretary for the Natural Resources and Environment.

A similar proposal introduced last year was met with criticism by members of Congress, environmental groups as well as average citizens. Rey said the administration sought to address concerns in this, its latest proposal, but said there are currently no other options and that “time is of the essence.”

The land sales would help offset costs to re-authorize the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act. That money helps rural counties, with millions of dollars going toward roads and schools. The bill expired in September, with counties receiving their last checks in December.

If the president’s plan is approved, half of the proceeds from land sold in a particular state would stay within that state, with money going toward statewide conservation projects, while the other half of proceeds would go toward the national program for rural school and road support.

The proposal is broken in two parts, with an emergency one-year re-authorization of the bill and another bill that would drop funding to about $400 over a four-year period ” a 50 percent cut over last year’s proposal.

“I would be in favor of selling excess land that has no use,” said Congressman John Doolittle (R-California).

But Congress didn’t support this proposal last year, he said, and is not likely to support the proposal this year.

“I would differ from the administration on this,” Doolittle said.

Doolittle, whose district includes several counties affected by the proposal, said the schools “need to have certainty” and shouldn’t have to rely on a plan that Congress will most likely reject.

“We just need to come up with an alternative funding source for the schools,” Doolittle said. “I view this as a very, very serious issue. I am working on it and hope to come up with a solution pretty quick.”

Placer County Superintendent of Schools Gayle Garbolino-Mojica said Placer County schools received $680,000 last year from the bill and the districts that receive the funding would have to cut back on programs and staff, including the Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District. Nevada County schools received $350,000 last year from the forest reserve funds.

“It would be very detrimental to many of our school districts,” said Garbolino-Mojica. “Education in California is already so underfunded compared with the national average. Any reduction would have a detrimental effect on us.”

The federal government gave money to rural counties in exchange for taking timberlands off the tax roll and creating national parks. The system worked well until the late 1980s, when logging was sharply reduced on federal land.

As revenue from logging decreased and the U.S. Forest Service was required to scale back operations, the forest counties experienced rapid increases in unemployment and depressed economies.

Smaller counties, like Sierra and Alpine counties, rely heavily on the funding and could see layoffs and school closures if the money is not re-instated. Congress needs to act by March 15 when school districts in California are required by law to inform teachers whether they will be needed the following school year. If Congress takes no action by that date, teacher layoffs could be widespread throughout rural counties in California.

“Quite frankly right now land sales won’t do us any good,” said James Parsons, Alpine County superintendent of schools. “We need the money by March.”

Doolittle said he is hopeful the re-authorization funds will be included in an emergency supplemental bill that will be introduced next month.

Jim French, Trinity County Superintendent of Schools and vice president of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition, said he hopes Congress will come together to find money for the schools.

“Personally, there’s probably some lands that are appropriate to sell, but there are members of Congress saying [this proposal is] dead on arrival,” French said.

“Finding an appropriate offset has been the key. I still think we have our work cut out for us.”