Popular trailhead not included in land sale

Boy Scout trail escapes national forest for-sale list

Posted: Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A popular Juneau trailhead was one of 242 parcels and 27,000 acres to be removed from the U.S. Forest Service's proposed for-sale list to help pay for rural schools and roads.

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The controversial sale is part of President Bush's Forest Service budget, which proposes to sell roughly 270,000 acres of National Forest lands. A similar proposal announced last year met with strong and widespread opposition.

Last year's proposal included 98 acres in the Tongass and one acre in the Chugach national forests. This year, the Alaska acreage totals only 6.24 acres, according to the Forest Service Web site.

Most of that is in the Juneau area.

Barbara Stanley, the Tongass' lands specialist, said that several of the acres named last year in the Tongass would not have made the list had there been more time to evaluate their importance.

One six-acre parcel was the Boy Scout trailhead, 30 miles north of downtown on Glacier Highway. It is a popular access to Eagle Beach, which has been a recreation location for Juneau residents for at least the past 70 years.

It is isolated by city-owned land, and she said that at the time that the Forest Service did not recognize the parcel's significance as an access point.

Two Tongass areas are still on the list and could eventually be sold to private buyers if the land sale is approved by Congress and the president.

One area includes two slivers of land north of Berners Bay and roughly three miles north of the Kensington Mine. These two parcels total five acres.

The other site, a half-acre, is located in Funter Bay. Both locations are surrounded by patented mining claims.

"These seem to be the two that were the least controversial," Stanley said. "They are tiny parcels that are isolated, difficult to manage, and don't have any outstanding resource values."

Stanley said that the slivers were formed during the mining claim process, when the areas were originally surveyed in the first quarter of the last century.

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The Bush plan would reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act as of October but would drop funding to about $400 million over a four-year period - a 50 percent cut over a proposal made last year. It is part of an administration plan to discontinue a previous formula for funding the rural schools and roads program with timber dollars.

Mark Rey, the Bush administration's Agriculture Undersecretary and policymaker for U.S. forests, said the land sale plan makes a few changes from last year.

It includes an advisory commission that would determine if individual parcels are worth selling and splits revenue from the sales between the rural schools program and conservation programs run by the Forest Service.

That last element was intended to address criticism that money from the land sales would not always benefit states where the land was sold.

Because an advisory commission would be set up, "I don't anticipate another comment period on this particular set of parcels," Rey said.

Beth Peluso of the Juneau-based Southeast Alaska Conservation Council said that while she is pleased that a number of Tongass acres were taken out of the sale plan, she worries about the short-sightedness of the program itself and the kind of precedent it might set.

"This is a short-term, stop-gap way of (funding rural schools). It doesn't seem like a very good plan to bring up again," she said.

Rey urged critics of the plan to come up with a viable, alternative solution to paying for under-funded schools.

"We are keen to hear them, others with ideas. It is not enough to simply state your opposition," he said.

Several western federal lawmakers and environmentalists also blasted the plan this year, however, and said they would oppose the new proposal.

"We're going to find a way to fund the (rural) schools program without selling even one acre of public land," added Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., the new chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee that oversees environmental spending, pronounced the plan dead on arrival.

"They are just not going to do this. It's not going to happen," Dicks said Monday.

Unlike many lawmakers from both parties, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said he was willing to consider the land-sale plan, if it could be fine-tuned to include land that truly is isolated or unnecessary for public use.

But even if some land sales are approved - an unlikely scenario given the swift rejection by Congress last year - the plan would not generate enough money in the short term to pay for the schools program, DeFazio said.

Bob Douglas, president of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition, said rural schools across the country are facing the real possibility of layoffs if money for the program is not found, and soon.

"We are truly facing an emergency of catastrophic proportions in our 800 forest counties and 4,400 forest county school districts," he said, adding that local governments could start sending out pink slips to as many 16,000 teachers and county employees in mid-March.

• Brittany Retherford can be reached at brittany.retherford@juneauempire.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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