Forestland on Sale List Not All Bare

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Much California acreage considered ‘nonvital’ in a Bush administration plan is worth keeping, say local officials and conservationists.

Source of this article – Los Angeles Times, February 28, 2006

By Bettina Boxall and Janet Wilson, Times Staff Writers

REDDING — Mountain property with dramatic views, the headwaters of salmon streams, tall timber and rugged backcountry, even a cave or two — all could be sold as part of a Bush administration proposal to auction roughly 300,000 acres of national forestland to fund rural schools and roads.

Administration officials have characterized the land, more than a quarter of which is in California, as isolated parcels that don’t belong in the 193-million-acre national forest system because they’re expensive to manage and aren’t vital to wildlife or recreation.

But a closer look at the 85,500 California acres that the U.S. Forest Service listed for possible sale two weeks ago reveals that the tracts aren’t all scraggly odds and ends. According to interviews with local forest officials and conservationists, some of the land — most of which lies in Northern California — borders scenic river corridors or has been proposed for possible wilderness protection by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Some has valuable timber. Other acreage provides winter range for deer or habitat for threatened species.

In booming Riverside County, a crucial wildlife corridor identified by federal biologists in Banning could be ruptured by the sale of two large tracts in the San Bernardino National Forest.

Far from being isolated, the parcels in several cases are strung together in blocs of 1,000 acres or more.

Others abut large chunks of national forest or other federal lands.

“This is definitely something every single conservation group is up in arms about. This is very misguided policy,” said Monica Bond, a biologist with the Joshua Tree office of the Center for Biological Diversity.

According to regional Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes, the state’s list of parcels was drawn up by the agency’s California office and derived from computer data that looked primarily at the size of the tracts and whether they were separated from the main body of the forest — not whether they played a role in wildlife, recreation or other forest uses.

“We were trying to come up with enough parcels to fund the program,” Mathes said.

The office has since pared about 6,000 acres from the California list in response to comments from forest managers and others, bringing the state total down to 79,362.

Among the tracts dropped are ones in the Los Padres and Inyo national forests, where there is no longer any land for sale. Mathes said there could be further cuts after today’s publication of the sales proposal in the Federal Register. But he also said regional officials disagreed with some of their local managers’ recommendations to remove parcels and kept them on the list.

A dozen tracts were struck from the roughly 14,000 acres originally listed in the 1.1-million-acre Lassen National Forest east of Redding in Northern California, but conservationists say significant parcels remain on the list.

Flying over the forest last week with LightHawk, a volunteer aviation group that arranges flights on environmental issues, wilderness proponent Ryan Henson looked down on one of them. Its wooded tabletop and canyon sides step up from the silvery curves of Deer Creek, which local forest managers have recommended for wild and scenic protection and which also is habitat for imperiled chinook salmon. Nearby is the unbroken country of the congressionally designated Ishi Wilderness.

Abutting the tract on another side is a bald, brown patch of privately owned timberland denuded by clear-cutting.

“This is what we have to look forward to if the parcels get bought,” said Henson, policy director of the California Wilderness Coalition.

Although forest managers said ranchers might purchase some of the Northern California plots, Henson and others predicted most bids would come from timber companies, developers and city dwellers eager to build mountain vacation homes.

Peg Boland, supervisor of the Klamath National Forest near the Oregon border, said her office had already received calls from Southern Californians interested in buying some of the nearly 31,000 acres listed for possible sale in the Klamath.

That acreage includes timberland, ponderosa pine forest and grasslands that provide winter range for deer and elk, as well as 80-year-old conifer stands that give cover to the threatened northern spotted owl and rare goshawk, Klamath officials said. Pluto’s Cave, popular with weekend spelunkers, is part of a sale tract with spectacular views of Mt. Shasta.

A few hundred miles to the south, in the Stanislaus National Forest in the Sierra Nevada, conservationist John Buckley steered his old Toyota pickup down a mud- and snow-topped road to a clump of parcels proposed for sale northeast of the village of West Point. Although surrounded by private land, the tracts are strung together, making a continuous strip of national forest holdings of more than 1,000 acres.

In front of him spread towering, century-old fir and pine trees, regrowth from long-ago logging. “Great habitat, a lot of wildlife value,” said Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center. Just to the south, a rectangle of sale parcels line the middle fork of the Mokelumne River and the east end of a small reservoir.

Buckley said he was not arguing that every earmarked parcel needed to stay in the forest system. But he and other environmentalists contend that selling them would erode the land-swap program that for the last couple of decades has been one of the Forest Service’s primary means of acquiring new holdings needed for recreation and wildlife.

“Why in the world would the Forest Service sell national forestlands when it could easily exchange those lands?” Buckley asked.

In Southern California, Roger Ohms also questioned the sales plan. He has lived for 23 years on a dead-end dirt road in remote Mais Canyon, near one of the listed tracts in the San Bernardino National Forest.

“I of course would like to see it left as open space,” he said, adding, “I’m just naturally a little irritated that the government is selling off, basically, our land. It’s not the government’s land, it’s our land, and I don’t think it’s there to be sold. Not that I’m an environmentalist or anything … but that’s my feeling.”

The administration’s proposal, which some historians say is unprecedented, will need approval from Congress, and that may be hard to gain.

“I think everyone acknowledges it would be something very difficult to get through Congress,” said Dan Whiting, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho).

The Bush plan would raise $800 million over five years for a rural schools and roads program traditionally supported by revenue from timber cutting in national forests. As logging has declined on federal land, so has the logging income. To make up for that, Craig and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in 2000 wrote legislation that has subsidized the program with nearly $3 billion from the federal treasury. But that money is about to run out.

“In a deficit budget environment, there aren’t $800 million worth of other budget offsets we could find,” said U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist who oversees the Forest Service. He said the national forest system had grown by 2 million acres over the last decade or so and predicted forest acquisitions would continue.
The national forest proposal is one of several recent attempts by the administration to use federal land sales to boost the U.S. budget. Last year it proposed, unsuccessfully, to use proceeds from booming Bureau of Land Management sales in the Las Vegas area to help offset the federal deficit. This year it is asking Congress to expand bureau land sales outside the Las Vegas region and send 70% of the proceeds, now mostly used for federal land purchases, to the treasury.

At the same time, the Bush administration has slashed other funding sources for land purchases by the Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. The administration’s 2007 proposed budget for land acquisition under the Land and Water Conservation Fund is roughly a tenth of its 1998 peak of nearly $900 million.