August 6, 2004
A proposal to expand a law allowing the Bureau of Land Management to sell federal land has conservationists up in arms and federal officials wondering what the fuss is about.
Kathleen Clarke, director of the Bureau of Land Management who visited the Salem district office Thursday morning, said the proposal simply expands the authority the agency already has.
Clarke was in Oregon this week to tour agency forests, timber sales and a private steam-powered mill. The BLM manages 262 million acres in the United States, including more than 17.7 million acres in Oregon.
Since 1976, the agency has been allowed to sell its own land but proceeds went directly to the U.S. Treasury instead of the agency.
In July 2000, a law was passed that allowed the agency to retain profits from the sale of lands that had already been identified. About three million acres across the West were identified for sale.
The money from sale of these lands must be used for buying new land and paying the costs related to the sales.
The idea behind selling existing land and acquiring new land is to have adjacent tracts of land rather than scattered, isolated fragments. Doing so can aid in land management and improve wildlife habitat.
The new proposal allows newly identified lands to be sold and some of the money from the sales to go to conservation enhancement projects, as well as the acquisition of other lands.
Johanna Wald, lands-program director at the National Resources Defense Council in San Francisco said she is concerned that the bureau — because it is chronically underfunded and understaffed — would use funds designated for these conservation enhancement programs for operating costs.
"I am worried about this proposal because I believe BLM lands are among the nation's great national treasures," Wald said. "I am concerned that the process of deciding whether or not to sell lands would be perverted by giving BLM the incentive to say 'Sell.'"
Even if the agency purchases the same number of acres it sells, the quality of those lands might not be as high, said Jay Ward of the Oregon Natural Resources Council.
"The BLM could easily use the argument that for continuity of forests, we are going to trade away this forest of trees for this forest of clear-cuts," he said. "There could be no net loss (of land) but we'd have 640 acres of stumps instead of 640 acres of old-growth trees."
Clarke said, however, that each land sale goes through an extensive public-comment process that outlines the value of the land and the natural resource assets.
"These lands belong to the public," Clarke said. "The public deserves to get fair-market value if we dispose of these lands."
However, the promise of a public process doesn't comfort environmentalists.
"I am not under the illusion that this administration takes public comment as anything more than dotting their i's and crossing their t's," Ward said, citing the Biscuit logging project that generated 23,000 comments, 95 percent of which were opposed to the logging. "This administration doesn't seem to pay attention to these comments. It seems to do exactly the opposite of what people say."
It remains to be seen if the proposal would substantially affect Oregon's BLM lands. About 2.5 million acres — former railroad land — are off limits from sale, but can be exchanged, said BLM Oregon director Elaine Marquis-Brong.
She added that the best opportunities for selling land is when it is next to other public land and growing cities, such as Bend.
Western Oregon has not taken advantage of the law, she said.
"I can't think of any (lands) we've sold off," said Denis Williamson, district manager for the Salem district office.
bcasper@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 589-6994