Selling unused federal land a good idea

Seattle Post-Intelligencer
April 11, 2006

By Holly L. Fretwell
Guest Columnist

Isn't it great to sell your junk at a yard sale, ridding your home of the stuff that no longer fits your lifestyle but just takes up space? Yard sales illustrate the beauty of markets: Both partners benefit. The buyer gets something new; the original owner takes the proceeds and uses them for personal goals.

The government owns assets, too -- a 600 million-acre federal estate. But it's difficult for this government to hold yard sales. Even a whisper about selling publicly owned assets typically sets off a firestorm of criticism. That happened recently when the Forest Service announced plans to sell off some land. Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico, and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, expressed opposition. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., declared the idea dead in the water.

But cooler heads may yet prevail. Why? There may be no alternatives, and it's a good idea.

The Forest Service proposes to sell off less than one-tenth of a percent of the federal estate, at most about 300,000 acres out of its 192 million acres. These lands provide little benefit to the average American, who pays for their management with taxes.

David Tenny, deputy undersecretary of agriculture, said the lands that have been selected no longer serve the goals of the Forest Service. Many are isolated parcels surrounded by private land with little or no public access. At least one-quarter of the land proposed for sale in the Gallatin National Forest near Bozeman, Mont., for example, is inaccessible. Other acreage is right next to metropolitan areas, devoid of Forest Service character: A small Forest Service parcel in Oregon is in the middle of a parking lot; another is being used to grow crops. Some of these lands were previously designated for land exchanges (trades with other agencies or private owners). And the public will have a chance to comment on all acres proposed for sale.

Just like the items in your own closet or garage, some acres within the federal estate have little value to the average citizen, and maintaining them comes at a cost. Even a benign use such as recreation requires spending to repair and maintain trails, develop campsites and toilet facilities, and provide signs and visitor information. (The Forest Service spends more than $300 million a year on recreation.) For parcels that are small and isolated, there is paperwork, monitoring and security costs.

Then there is what economists call opportunity cost. Spending money on marginal parcels means that the money can't be used for the nation's crown jewels. Such places as the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Flathead National Forest and Stehekin Valley in Washington's Okanogan National Forest truly provide a unique, pristine experience. And in highly visited areas, money would be better spent on forest restoration, wildlife protection and facilities to help reduce human impact.

If the sales go through, what will happen to the revenues from selling those parcels? The original justification for the sale was to find $800 million for rural school districts. Because of severe declines in federal timber sales, counties don't receive funds that the Forest Service formerly provided. Congress made up the difference under a law that expires this year. To continue support, Congress is under pressure to come up with revenues or offsets.

But revenue is just one goal. Unlike Forest Service lands that contain important watersheds and wildlife habitat, these lands are a burden that all taxpayers pay for. Let's stop the waste. It is time to clean the closet.

Holly L. Fretwell is a research fellow with the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont. (www.perc.org). PERC is a non-profit institute dedicated to improving environmental quality through markets.

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Holly Fretwell is a Research Fellow at PERC and an adjunct instructor at Montana State University where she has taught  introductory economics, macroeconomics, natural resources and environmental economics. She works with the Foundation for Teaching Economics, giving workshops for  high school teachers to improve their skills in teaching and...
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