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Editorials
For the week of August 2 through 8, 2000

Zone now, not later


Blaine County needs to prepare itself for the possibility that the Bureau of Land Management may sell off lands in the county.

Late last year, BLM officials met in their offices in Shoshone and decided to look at trading the bulk of BLM lands in the county into private hands. BLM holdings in Blaine County are immense.

President Clinton added impetus to the idea this week when he signed legislation that allows the BLM to take a 20 percent cut of sales of land that the agency’s local land plans have designated as appropriate for private or local government.

The bill is a two-edged sword. The other 80 percent is to be earmarked to fund the purchase of private holdings in federally protected areas. All of the money previously went into the Treasury Department in Washington D.C.

The new law will encourage a BLM sell-off like nothing before. The BLM will now have an easy way to generate money necessary to do environmental studies that must be conducted before any land is sold. Funding these studies had kept annual sell-offs to a minimum, an average of about 5,000 acres a year nationally.

No more. A BLM spokesman said the agency expects to sell between 300,000 and 500,000 acres nationally in the next 10 years. That’s between 60 and 100 times the past average.

It’s a good bet the first places the BLM will look to sell will be in areas like the Wood River Valley where land values are high. The reason is simple. They will generate more money for the BLM to spend.

The sell-off could turn into a disaster for Blaine County, if steps are not taken to stave off a potential land rush now.

To prevent the sprawl that could result from a sell-off, the county should establish a low-density zoning designation for public lands sold into private hands. The density should be set to protect the valley’s rural atmosphere, one unit per thousand acres, for example. Allowable densities can always increase when necessary, but they rarely decrease.

The county has ample reason to set densities very, very low. Higher residential densities could squeeze public services already groaning under the burden inflicted by growth.

The county also should insist that the BLM preserve widespread access to any adjacent public lands as part of any change in ownership. It should also insist that any popular local sites like the Sun Peak Picnic Area on the Big Wood River be retained in public ownership.

There’s been precious little public discussion in the county about what can be done if the BLM insists on a big sell-off here. It’s time to make a plan, get it discussed in public forums and get it in place before the BLM begins to sell in earnest.

 

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