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Published in Print: February 22, 2006, as Bush’s Forest Proposal Worries Rural Schools

Bush’s Forest Proposal Worries Rural Schools

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President Bush wants to sell more than 300,000 acres of federal lands to finance federal payments for rural schools and counties, while moving to end an existing aid program.

The proposal, contained in the administration’s fiscal 2007 budget proposal, would generate some $800 million over five years that would be paid to localities that are nestled amid the nation’s 193 million acres of public lands.

But the plan would be part of a phaseout of federal payments that have totaled more than $370 million annually, under a 2000 law that created a financial “safety net” for localities that historically received a slice from federal earnings from commercial timber sales, mining, and grazing on federal lands.

The plan, which requires congressional approval, has drawn criticism from several governors of Western states, where most of the parcels identified by the U.S. Forest Service are located. Environmental groups also oppose the sales. And organizations concerned with rural education are raising questions.

“The problem with selling the land is, though it’s a very, very small portion of the total amount of land, that creates one-time money,” said Bob Mooneyham, the executive director of the National Rural Education Association in Norman, Okla. “Then, after that’s expended, what assurance have we that the pot will be replenished?”

Since 2001, rural counties and school districts have received over $1.6 billion from the federal government under the Secure Rural Schools Act of 2000. The law stabilized federal payments made under a 1908 statute that gives 25 percent of revenues from federal sales of timber, and 50 percent from sales of minerals, to states in which national forest lands are located, to support schools and maintain roads. Those revenues declined sharply in the 1990s, largely due to federal curbs on logging in the national forests.

A coalition of school groups that includes the NREA, the National Education Association, and the American Association of School Administrators favors extending the 2000 law, which expires in October.

President Bush’s proposal would amend the law to make payments over five years from the money raised by the land sales, and then discontinue the program, said Heidi Valetkevitch, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service.

James W. Parsons, the superintendent of the 2,500-student Alpine County, Calif., school district, who was representing the coalition on Capitol Hill last week, said the law should be extended, as is, to give rural communities more time to work out “a self-sustaining fiscal solution that would go on indefinitely.”

“It’s going to be disastrous for us if this isn’t reauthorized,” he said, noting that $400,000 of the district’s $3 million budget is from the federal payments.

He said 92 percent of his district is national forest. “We cannot develop tax, build on, do anything with that property,” he said.

Ms. Valetkevitch said most of the parcels proposed for sale, which are in 35 states, are small, isolated, and inefficient to manage. She added that the Forest Service routinely sells, acquires, and exchanges land, and that the land would be sold at market prices and become part of the local communities’ tax bases.

Trophy Homes?

Michael Francis, the director of the national-forest program of the Wilderness Society, an environmental-advocacy group based in Washington, said the land sale would benefit private developers and hurt recreational users.

Many parcels “look like they’re near bodies of water” and would be prime land for “trophy-home development,” he said. “They might be access points to other federal lands,” which would limit their use for recreation, he said.

He said the Wilderness Society supports the reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools Act.

A federal panel created under the law to study the payments issue recommended extension of the act because rural schools depend on the money. The Forest Counties Payment Committee concluded in 2003 that the money was being spent effectively on schools, roads, and a variety of projects to improve forest health, as well as for other purposes.

One committee member, Tim H. Creal, is the superintendent of the 1,000-student Custer, S.D., school district, which receives about $300,000 annually from the payment fund. The money covers the salaries of six or seven teachers, in a total annual budget of $5 million.

More than half of his district lies in federal forests, including a dozen or so parcels proposed for sale, Mr. Creal said.

“My concern as local school district superintendent is the fact that the goal is to zero out the program,” he said. “The sale of the properties is just a short-term fix to the funding part of it.”

Reaction to the president’s proposal on Capitol Hill has been mixed, with opposition expressed by some Democrats and members of both parties from rural and Western states, who support bills to extend the current law.

Vol. 25, Issue 24, Page 35

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