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BLM land sale plan criticized
By EVE BYRON - IR Staff Writer - 03/04/06

While the proposed sale of National Forest lands has outraged many Western residents, a second plan to sell off public lands to raise money to offset the federal budget deficit has gotten little attention.

Tucked into President Bush’s 2007 budget is a proposal to raise $182 million in the next five years by selling Bureau of Land Management property and a total of $351 million in the next decade.

That by itself isn’t a change in policy, because the BLM already is tasked to sell off isolated parcels of public land that don’t fit within the federal agency’s management plans.

As part of the Federal Land Transaction and Facilitation Act — or FLTFA — 80 percent of the money raised by the sale is used to acquire inholdings within national parks, national monuments, national forests, and BLM conservation areas. The remaining 20 percent is used to cover the BLM’s administrative costs.

But the new Bush budget calls for 70 percent of the BLM’s land sale receipts to go into the national treasury instead, to be used to reduce the federal deficit.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) sent a letter earlier this week to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, saying that the BLM proposal is “equally nasty” as the plan to sell off $800 million worth of Forest Service lands — an estimated 175,000 acres —to help fund rural schools and roads during the next five years.

“Amending the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act to sell off BLM land to pay down the debt abandons the very public lands the law was meant to support,” Baucus wrote in his letter. “It also abandons Montana’s sportsmen and ranchers that depend on access to our public lands.

“I urge you in the strongest terms to back away from this proposal. We should be increasing access to public lands for our sportsmen and ranchers, not putting more padlocks on more gates.”

The National Forest and BLM sales would result in $1 billion of public lands being sold in the next five years.

Montana has about eight million acres of BLM land, and has sold parcels in the past. But officials with the agency said on Friday that they don’t see the Bush budget proposal affecting Montana strongly.

“It just depends on what we are directed to do. But at this point, I don’t see it having a real large impact,” said Dee Baxter, a realty specialist in the BLM’s Billings office. “We have only had four public sales in 10 years and they were for 90 acres.”

She said only two parcels currently are being considered for sale; they involve a city lot in Glasgow and another near there bordering a subdivision.

The BLM has done quite a few land exchanges in the Helena area, including the swap two years ago of the formerly private 2,200-acre Ward Ranch on Holter Lake with 8,000 acres of scattered BLM parcels. Rick Hotaling with the BLM field office in Butte said he doesn’t think this proposal will hurt the agency’s ability to do similar swaps.

“As far as I know, we haven’t ever tapped into that (FLTFA) fund,” Hotaling said.

But there are concerns that the sales will limit the BLM’s ability to do future land exchanges if it sells off the parcels instead.

In addition, Bob Ekey, Northern Rockies director for The Wilderness Society, said members are worried that with the amount of money Bush expects to raise, the BLM may have to start selling larger parcels that the federal agency may not have wanted to put on the auction block in the past.

“Just to outright sell these lands, to put money in the federal treasury n I don’t think people will support it,” he said.

Another issue raised is that while the Forest Service has identified potential parcels for sale, the BLM has not. Hotaling said the parcels are being identified as the BLM creates “Resource Management Plans,” known as RMPs.

But not knowing what’s on the table bothers Baucus.

“What is perhaps most upsetting about this proposal is its vagueness,” Baucus noted. “This proposal includes no specifics, no indication of the number of acres or location of lands potentially affected.”

Reporter Eve Byron can be reached at 447-4076 or by e-mail at [email protected]

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