The scattered California parcels are part of a nationwide sales package slated to raise an estimated $800 million. Plucked from throughout the Sierra Nevada mountains and from most of the state's 18 national forests, the California parcels are the kind of land Forest Service officials say they will not miss.
"These are acres that don't meet national forest needs, that are hard to manage and that are isolated," Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey said Thursday. "In some cases, people don't even realize they are part of the national forest."
Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, indicated that between 150,000 and 200,000 acres nationwide are likely to be proposed for sale. Culled from recommendations made by individual forest managers, the parcels being proposed today will be open for public comment for 30 days before the package is sent to Congress.
Congress, though, need not go along, and environmentalists are already fighting the idea.
"We have major, major concerns about this," said John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte. "If the land goes out of public ownership, it clearly means it will be less protected."
Some isolated Forest Service land, Buckley noted, is in the midst of property owned by major timber companies such as Sierra Pacific. These parcels could be bought and clear-cut once they are in private hands, he said. Other isolated Forest Service parcels could be sold to join nearby residential or recreational developments.
"These are public lands that are going to people who will in most cases be going to develop them," Buckley said.
"Virtually all of the forests in California are contributing," noted Matt Mathes, spokesman for the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest office.
The money raised from selling the land over five years would help fill up school coffers that now depend on the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act. That law expires Sept. 30.
Urged on by educators like Alpine County Unified School District Superintendent James Parsons, Congress passed the rural school funding bill in 2000. Because declining timber harvests had undermined the previous system of tying federal dollars to harvest levels, the 2000 law guaranteed rural counties a set funding level based on past harvests.
"It was a time-limited authorization, to help counties adjust," Rey said. "It's our judgment that while some counties had adjusted, others have not."
It's also expensive. In 2005, the federal government provided $393 million through the rural schools program, including $67 million to California. Counties with national forest land don't want to give this money up. Fresno County, for instance, received $2.7 million last year, while Tuolumne County received $2.5 million and El Dorado County received $4 million.
To update the expiring law, officials needed to come up with more money. That's where the idea of selling off land came in, though Forest Service officials quickly realized they would need congressional approval.
"We couldn't find $800 million in spending cuts," Rey said, "so we looked at revenue raisers."