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Old March 1st, 2006, 06:49 PM   #1
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Default Public land sales plan challenged by lawmakers

Public-land sale plan challenged by lawmakers

By Matthew Daly

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON Senators from both parties on Tuesday challenged a Bush administration plan to sell more than 300,000 acres of national forest to help pay for rural schools in 41 states.

Lawmakers said the short-term gains would be offset by the permanent loss of public lands. They also said profits from the proposed sales would fall far short of what's needed to help rural governments pay for schools and other basic services.

"I just don't think we can play Russian roulette with these local communities," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who vowed to "do everything I can" to stop the plan.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, had a more visceral reaction: "No, heck no," he told Bush administration officials at a Senate hearing Tuesday.

Wyden and Craig were co-sponsors of a 2000 law that has pumped more than $2 billion into rural counties hurt by logging cutbacks on federal land. The so-called "county payments" law has helped offset sharp declines in timber sales in Oregon and other Western states in the wake of federal forest policy that restricts logging to protect endangered species such as the spotted owl.

The law is set to expire Sept. 30.

The land-sale plan would reauthorize the law for five years but calls for a phased reduction in funding to zero by 2011.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who directs U.S. forest policy, called the proposed cutbacks painful but necessary. The law was never intended to be permanent, he said, but was a way to help rural counties transition from dependence on timber receipts to a more broad-based economy.

The lands proposed for sale are all isolated, difficult or expensive to manage, and no longer meet Forest Service needs, Rey said.

His comments were met with bipartisan derision.

"To propose selling off public lands we will lose forever, in exchange for a program we can pay for by other more prudent means, is simply irresponsible," said Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo.

"The Bush administration wants to eliminate a proven, balanced initiative in favor of a public-lands fire sale," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
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