Government using wrong argument for sale of forest

Freedom Newspapers

The Bush administration isn’t exactly a fount of sensible policy making, as it spends tax dollars wildly and proposes one government expansion after another. But even when the administration does something wise and reasonable, its Democratic critics howl and squeal to high heaven.

The administration announced this month a plan to sell an infinitesimal portion of national forest land to the private sector, amounting to less than 1/10th of 1 percent of the government’s forest holdings nationwide.

By the way, the federal government’s national forest system encompasses 193 million acres, which is less than one-third of the total amount of land owned by the federal government.

Yet, as undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey told the media, some media outlets and Democratic politicians are acting as if the Bush administration is proposing to sell off vast tracts of land, including national treasures.

“Is selling off Bitterroot National Forest or the Sierra National Forest or Yellowstone National Park a good idea?,” Rey asked. “No, not in general. But I challenge these people who are engaging in this flowery rhetoric … to take a hard look at these specific parcels and tell me they belong in national forest ownership.”

Unfortunately, the administration isn’t doing the best job selling the idea. It says it wants to sell the land to generate about $1 billion to help finance some administration budget priorities, most notably to pay for rural schools.

We don’t think it’s the federal government’s responsibility to pay for local schools, rural or otherwise.

The administration has missed an opportunity to make an argument for the transfer of more federally owned lands to the private sector.

The public sector does a miserable job of managing national forests. Governments can never take care of resources the way private owners can. Private parties have a vested interest in taking good care of their land, to maximize its productivity and value.

Critics argue that the sell-off of some of this land will lead to — gasp! — more development. In most of the rural areas where the lands are located, this would be welcome. The critics also argue that selling the land would take the land away from the public forever. But what does it really mean to take such assets away from the public? The government is not the same as the public, and private assets are often more open to average citizens than government-owned lands, many of which are reserved as wilderness — i.e., off-limits to everyone except government managers.

Ignore the overheated cries of environmentalists. Too bad the Bush administration is defending its strategy only on utilitarian, budgetary grounds.