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Federal land sell-off back on the table

| February 8, 2007 11:00 PM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Editor

The Bush administration is again proposing the sale of nearly 300,000 acres of federal land to fund the reauthorization of a law that provides subsidies to counties formerly dependent on income from national forests.

The proposal includes 11,159 acres in Montana, more than 5,000 of which are on the Kootenai National Forest. Thirty-eight tracts on the Kootenai are earmarked for possible sale with the largest at 480 acres.

A similar proposal was floated last year but failed to make it through Congress. This year's plan removes 27,000 disputed acres and includes a provision for half of the money raised from land sales to stay within the states where it was generated to fund land acquisition and conservation projects.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Mark Rey acknowledged the opposition to the proposal but said a budget "offset" needs to be found to pay for reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, which expired in 2006.

"We're now a year further into this debate, and nobody's come forward with an alternative offset that's sitting on the table and available for this purpose," Rey said.

The administration is proposing a one-year reauthorization of the act at current levels, with funding coming from within the budget, followed by a four-year phase-out period funded by federal land sales.

When the act became law in 2000, funds came from a budget surplus that existed at that time, Rey said.

"It was a lot easier in 2000 than it is now, but that is just the fiscal difference between then and now," he said.

The proposal will be debated as part of the fiscal year 2008 budget, which sets a framework for all government spending and appropriations for the coming year.

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus said he supports extending the program, but not by selling off public lands.

"We're going to find a way to fund the Secure Schools program without selling even one acre of public land," Baucus said. "Auctioning off our outdoor heritage is not the way to do this. Our public lands in the West are sacrosanct. The president can count on a fight in Congress."

U.S. Rep Denny Rehberg called the proposal "unacceptable."

Rehberg co-sponsored a bill introduced last month by Oregon Reps. Peter DeFazio and Greg Walden to reauthorize the law for seven years.

From 1908 until 2000, counties received a 25 percent share of forest receipts, mostly from timber harvest. With the decline in logging on national forests, that share was shrinking. The 2000 law - enacted with a six-year lifespan - set annual payments at an average of the three highest years of the previous decade.

For Lincoln County, that amounted to more than $5.8 million per year, with 15 percent taken off the top for special forest-related projects mandated by the new law and the remainder divided under a Montana statute allocating two-thirds to roads and one-third to schools.

The county received about $3.3 million per year for roads. The county's road budget was just under $3 million.

If the law isn't reauthorized, payments will revert to the 25 percent formula and the county could expect to receive less than $1 million to fund its road department. According to the county commissioners, that could lead to new taxes along with drastic cuts in services.

The majority of the schools' share goes into Montana's statewide equalization fund, but about $500,000 goes directly to Lincoln County districts' transportation and retirement funds.