Proposal To Sell Public Lands Provides Good Test Of Ownership Ideal

DALLAS (February 13, 2007) – Is the Bush administration proposal to sell U.S. Forest Service land a good idea, or would it be a case of sacrificing the environment for money?  Contrary to what some critics charge, the idea offers a "win-win" for both the government and the environment, according to a scholar with National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA).

"This is a baby step, but a good one," said NCPA Senior Fellow H. Sterling Burnett.  "It would provide good test cases for extending the ownership society ideal to natural resources without posing a threat to the environment."

The administration is proposing to sell approximately 273,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land nationwide to fund rural schools and roads.  The government expects the sale will generate $800 million to help fund the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which expired in September.  Half of the funds raised by the sale would go to continue payments to rural counties.  The other half would go to conservation efforts, habitat restoration and to purchase more Forest Service land.

Burnett noted that government has poorly managed the public's natural resources as it struggles to balance public land uses, such as logging and recreation, with preservation of lands in their original state. As a result, public lands have been degraded and the wildlife that depends on them destroyed.  For instance, logging and the roads built in national forests to access timber have often been environmentally destructive:

  • In the Northern Rockies, some trout and salmon streams have been severely damaged by several feet of silt or mud runoff from logging roads and clear cuts.
  • Road construction created inroads for exotic, often harmful species of wildlife, plants and parasites.

Alternatively, the Forest Service has also tried the "let-nature-take-its-course" approach by designating roadless areas and limiting logging.  But the forests' health has continued to decline because they are overcrowded with too many living, dying and dead trees:

  • Historically, large ponderosa pines grew in stands of 20 to 55 trees per acre in the Western national forests; today they grow in densities of 300 to 900 trees per acre.
  • National forests in California have an estimated 10 to 20 times more trees than is "natural."
  • 60 percent of national forest land is unhealthy and faces an abnormal fire hazard, and more than 90 million acres is at high risk for catastrophic fires.

"Helping local governments, schools and the environment – this plan is a win-win in the long-term," said Burnett.  "While environmentalists will decry this as the end of the world, the size of the sale would only be 1/10 of one percent of the federal forests.  And they could hardly be managed worse than they currently are – under private stewardship we would expect them to improve."