This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
WASHINGTON - Tucked amid thousands of pages of President Bush's $2.77 trillion budget is a proposal to sell off tens of thousands of acres of national forests and Bureau of Land Management land.
The two separate proposals are part of an effort to make the agencies operate more efficiently and generate new revenue in tight budget times, agency officials say. Together, they would generate more than $1 billion over five years.
But to environmental groups, it's like eBay for public lands.
"You marry these two up together and what you have is them proposing a billion-dollar privatization program," said Dave Alberswerth, a public lands expert with The Wilderness Society. "When Western residents wake up to the fact that the Bush administration has a . . . scheme to divest the public of its lands, I don't think people are going to like that very much."
The BLM program seeks to sell $30 million of land in the first year, and would grow from there. Over five years, the sales would generate about $260 million, according to budget projections.
Mike Ferguson, budget officer for BLM, said the agency identifies lands through its land-use plans that have little scenic, recreational or mineral value and are hard to manage, often because they are isolated. But they could be of use to some private party.
Congress gave BLM the authority to sell land in 2000, but only those acres that had already been identified as surplus.
The new proposal would change that, and would direct 70 percent of revenues from land sales into the treasury, where it could be used for any federal program. Four percent would go to the states, and the remainder could be used by BLM for things like campground or trail maintenance or weed eradication.
Currently, land sale revenue is used to buy new lands with wildlife habitat or other values. The BLM has about $25 million in its land acquisition fund, revenues from earlier land sales, Ferguson said. In 2005, the BLM sold off 8,409 acres for a total of $16 million.
"We probably don't need to acquire as much additional land as we're disposing of and we have a lot of other needs in terms of managing the lands we do have," said Ferguson. "It's nice to be able to find a revenue stream that will help meet some of the other discretionary programs."
The Forest Service proposal would liquidate up to 200,000 acres of federal forestland - parcels that are deemed impractical or unnecessary to retain - with the anticipated $800 million in proceeds directed to a program to fund rural schools.
Utah schools, for example, received nearly $2 million from the Secure Rural Schools program last year.
The program currently is funded with taxpayer dollars, but by selling the land, that money could be spent elsewhere.
"There could be a lot of hyperbole on a proposal like this," said Forest Service spokesman Dan Jiron. "This proposal . . . is pretty contained to small parcels, anywhere from a fraction of an acre to less than 200 acres. Mid-range would be 10 to 100 acres, disconnected and inefficient to manage."
At the end of the week the Forest Service plans to publish a preliminary list of lands it has identified as being eligible for sale, should Congress approve the program. Jiron could not say what, if any, Utah forest lands would be on the list.
Alberswerth said that, by estimating revenue, the Bush administration is setting a quota and letting deficit reduction drive public lands policy.
"Here's a case where they will have a mandate and a target, a quota of money they have to raise according to this budget from land sales each year," Alberswerth said. "The problem here is that there doesn't seem to be particular rationale [to the sales] other than to raise money."
Ferguson said that is not the case. "It's not that we're going out to look for some certain lands to bring it up to a certain dollar amount," he said.
BLM land sales are rare in Utah, the last one taking place in Vernal several years ago, and it was fairly small, said state BLM spokesman Don Banks. There has been some interest in another sale of some BLM land in Washington County, he said.
In the draft of the BLM's management plan for the Price area, the agency identified dozens of parcels that could be disposed of by the agency, though the number of acres is unclear.
Southern Nevada has been where most of the land-sale action has taken place, with the BLM selling off chunks of land surrounding the Las Vegas area.