Friday, March 3, 2006

Simpson rips Bush's land sale plan

U.S. Forest Service accepting public comments until end of month


By STEVE BENSON
Express Staff Writer

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, spoke out this week against the Bush administration's proposal to sell off more than 304,000 acres of public land managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

The comments came during a House subcommittee hearing Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

Simpson's concerns surround the Department of Interior's fiscal year 2007 budget, which in addition to the federal land sale proposes to slash $34 million from the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILT) program, which is designed to assist rural counties in the West.

Specifically, PILTs are federal payments to county governments to help curb the loss of property tax revenue that stems from having expansive areas of federal lands in their boundaries. Blaine County and nearby Custer County both receive PILTs from the federal government.

"I'm just wondering if there is any coordination effort between different agencies and departments when creating their yearly budgets," Simpson, who serves as the vice chairman of the House Interior Appropriations Committee, said in the hearing. "I ask this question because within two separate budget proposals, there is the potential for the elimination or decrease of funding for two programs that are very important to communities in the West."

Simpson is the creator of the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act (CIEDRA), proposed legislation that would designate as wilderness 300,011 acres in the Boulder-White Cloud mountains north of Ketchum.

Last week, during a meeting of the Blaine County Republicans in Hailey, Simpson expressed concern that the proposed federal land sales could harm CIEDRA. In addition to establishing wilderness, Simpson's bill would grant Custer County between 2,000 and 7,000 acres of federal land for private development purposes. Approximately 96 percent of Custer County is federal land.

Simpson believes those opposed to CIEDRA will tie the federal land sale proposal into his bill, casting a shadow over the bill's hearing, which is expected to occur sometime this month.

Commissioners from Blaine and Custer counties have expressed similar fears.

But Simpson's concerns appear to go beyond CIEDRA.

"I raised this question with (Interior) Secretary (Gale) Norton because year in and year out we see a reduction of PILT funds at a time when rural Western communities can't afford it," Simpson said in a news release. "These payments are not a hand out; the federal government has an obligation to the communities and people of the Western United States."

But, by slashing PILT and proposing a public land sale, "it appears rural communities are an afterthought," the congressman added. "That distresses me and I want to see it changed."

The land sales would raise an estimated $1 billion over five years, with about $800 million used to fund the Secure Rural Schools and Self Determination Act, which expires Sept. 30.

In Idaho, 26,194 acres of national forest land have been pegged for the sale, including more than 5,000 acres in the Sawtooth National Forest, mostly in the Sheep Driveway area west of Fairfield.

Located about 12 miles west of Soldier Mountain Resort and about two miles north of U.S. Highway 20, the Sheep Driveway consists of 4,818 acres spread across 11 parcels in the Sawtooth National Forest. The largest parcel is 640 acres, while the smallest is 120 acres. The parcels exist on a virtual island of national forest land surrounded by private land.

Another 640 acres spread across three parcels of Sawtooth National Forest land in the Raft River area of northern Utah is also earmarked for sale.

"(Those) parcels are totally surrounded by private land," said Sawtooth National Forest spokesman Ed Waldapfel. "They're isolated and inefficient for us to manage—that's why they got added in the mix there."

Waldapfel said his office has received a "few" phone calls from people expressing interest in the potential sale.

"One of them was from a person in Hailey just wanting to know where the lands are," he said.

Local and state government agencies and nonprofit land trust organizations would be given first rights to buy the parcels at market value, according to the Forest Service.

The Forest Service will accept public comments on the proposed land sale until March 30. Comments can be sent via e-mail to SRS_Land_Sales@fs.fed.us. For additional information, visit www.fs.fed.us.




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