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Proposed sell-off includes 5,000 acres on Kootenai

| February 16, 2006 11:00 PM

A Bush administration proposal to sell off more than 300,000 acres of federal lands across the United States includes around 5,000 acres on the Kootenai National Forest.

The proposal calls for the land sales to help fund the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, which subsidizes counties that were formerly dependent on their 25-percent share of proceeds from timber sales and other activities on national forests. A response to declining timber receipts, the act provides stable payments based on an average from past years. Payments under the act are primarily directed to roads and schools with a smaller portion set aside for other projects on federal lands.

The program is scheduled to expire in September at the end of the federal fiscal year. The president's budget proposal to Congress for next year calls for selling federal land to pay for the act's extension. The plan includes more than 14,000 acres in Montana, about 5,000 of which are within the KNF.

The acreage is split among about 40 parcels ranging in size from 40 to 480 acres and spread across the forest, said Cami Winslow, administrative officer for the KNF. A "very preliminary map" from the Washington, D.C., office indicates that the parcels were selected because of their isolation from other national forest system lands, Winslow said. The tracts proposed for sale are generally adjacent to private land and difficult for the Forest Service to access and manage, she said.

"They're not connected to other Forest Service parcels," she said.

An official map is expected to be available by the end of the month, Winslow said. The map will be available for viewing at Forest Service offices and on the KNF's website at A notice is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Feb. 28, starting a 30-day public comment period.

The proposal is far from a done deal, however.

"I think we're a long ways away," Winslow said.

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus has called the plan "dead in the water as long as I'm in the U.S. Senate."

"Our public lands shouldn't be sold off the highest bidder," Baucus said. "We should be looking at ways to boost access to hunting and fishing lands, not at ways to put more padlocks on more gates."

Baucus said he supports extending the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, but not by selling off public lands to do so.

"The merits of the Secure Rural Schools program are not in question," he said. "The proposal to sell off public lands is. I'm going to fight this 'padlock plan' with everything I've got."

The proposal will be debated as part of the fiscal year 2007 budget, which sets a framework for all government spending and appropriations for the coming year.