A Bush Administration plan now in Congress to sell off at least 175,000 acres of federal land in 35 states to aid rural schools ought to be titled the "Country Estates Full Development Act."
As one neighbor of the rolling acres of the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri told the Kansas City Star, "There are doctors and lawyers and professors waiting for opportunities like this - to get a spot of heaven, to get away from the rat race."
It's not that the U.S. Forest Service intends to dispose of the land cheaply; property in that area recently sold for $5,500 an acre. It's that prime recreational land in some of the most desirable areas of the country would be sold at prices only the wealthiest could afford and put off limits forever to the general public.
In other words, another version of welfare for the rich, a pernicious pattern of unpublic service this administration has been striving to live up to since 2001.
In an attempt to help balance the federal budget, the Forest Service wants to raise $800 million over the next five years to compensate for declining revenue from timber sales in national forests. Some 300,000 acres have been earmarked, but officials believe they will have to sell only 175,000, including 420 in the Wayne National Forest in southern Ohio.
Congress still must approve this unwarranted action; lawmakers should reject it.
The land up for sale amounts to only 0.02 percent of all national forest property. But it's extremely valuable. Consider, for example, that the Forest Service owns 20 percent of the state of California, including its most scenic areas. Once that land is out of public hands, it is gone forever.
Moreover, the ostensible purpose of the sales - to compensate rural counties where the presence of nontaxable public land diminishes the property tax base and hurts local schools - can be accomplished on a more equitable basis from other sources.
Balancing the budget is fine but the long-term interest of maintaining land for public use should not be sacrificed for merely short-term gain.
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