No one intended it this way, but the White House apparently has found the magic formula for uniting conservatives, liberals, ecofreaks and pro-development types in Congress.
The administration's scheme to sell parts of the National Forest System is bringing them together like moths to a light--mostly against the idea.
Actually, the administration has not even proposed a sale. What it has proposed is a study of 6 million acres of the system to determine if all, part or none of the land should be sold as unmanageable, uneconomical excess.
But excess or not, the targeted acreage includes portions of national forests that draw millions of visitors every year--from Vermont's Green Mountains to lands in California's Big Sur area.
Selling public lands--"privatization" is the popular term--is part of a White House plan for disposing of all kinds of "surplus" federal property. The sales would raise revenue to help reduce the federal deficit while also streamlining U.S. property management.
But the wood chips are hitting the fan in a big way on Capitol Hill. And, reacting to the reaction, the Department of Agriculture has gone back to the drawing board on legislation authorizing disposal of land that may be declared excess.
Congressional kingpins have made it plain to the USDA that legislators are in no mood to give the department a blank check to unload land without knowing the specifics. And even at that, they indicate that Congress may not go along with the sale idea anyway.
Some examples of the adverse reaction:
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) said flatly that, as long as he chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, the Uwharrie National Forest in his home state will not be sold. The USDA targeted 41,000 of its 47,000 acres for study and possible sale.
Don't even think about selling any forest land until you know precisely which acres are excess and what they're worth, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman James A. McClure (R-Idaho) warned John B. Crowell Jr., assistant secretary of agriculture, in a February hearing. The USDA has pinpointed 187,000 acres for further study in Idaho. "The public doesn't trust what your objectives are for whatever reason, rightly or wrongly," McClure said.
Sen. Walter D. Huddleston (D-Ky.), ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, said he was "outraged" by the proposal and would oppose it. The USDA targeted 34,600 acres of Kentucky's Daniel Boone National Forest for study, but the maps it provided Huddleston were next to unintelligible.
Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) quickly introduced a bill putting strict limits on disposal of any federal property--not just USDA forest lands--and requiring congressional approval of any sales to private interests. The bill, co-sponsored by John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), was referred to McClure's Energy Committee.
Reps. John F. Seiberling (D-Ohio) and Charles O. Whitley (D-N.C.), chairmen of public lands and forestry subcommittees, have let it be known that they'll look at any bill the administration sends along, but they're in no mood to approve sales of forest lands. The USDA is studying 36 percent of Ohio's national forest land for disposal and 6 percent of North Carolina's.
Other members of Congress and state governors are joining environmental and conservation organizations such as the Wilderness Society and the National Audubon Society in cries of sellout. And that is just for starters--before the U.S. Forest Service has even come up with specifics.
The Society of American Foresters, for instance, has a task force at work on the land-sale issue, but lobbyist James Lyons said the group is leery of any move to dispose of public lands to raise revenue.
Rexford A. Resler, executive vice president of the American Forestry Association, sounded a similar theme.
"We'd not be opposed to the sale of some isolated parcels," Resler said. "But 100,000-acre tracts, which appear on the study list, are not isolated tracts. We are against anything approaching wholesale disposal of federal lands."
The message has filtered through, in part. Forest Service officials say the enabling legislation that was to have gone to Congress by mid-April is being reworked and won't be ready for several months. They concede privately that the plan is looking more and more like a snowball in Hades.
They also concede that the 6 million acres listed for further study were assembled hastily to comply with orders from President Reagan's Property Review Board, whose job is to identify surplus federal properties. Maps are imprecise; selected areas and study designations are unclear.
One Forest Service official, alluding to the haste, noted that the study list includes 85,000 acres of the Los Padres National Forest in California. President Reagan's ranch lies within Los Padres, and if adjoining or nearby federal land goes on the block the president's retreat could become less secluded.
"Jeez," the official said, "nobody alerted us that the Los Padres study included the land around the president's ranch. If that were sold, some franchise food company or a condominium developer could move right in there."
But the lands listed in the USDA's disposal study plan go far beyond Reagan's Rancho del Cielo. Up the California coast, for example, the USDA has ticketed 4,000 acres in the Big Sur area--including Pfeiffer Beach, which drew 90,000 visits last year--for possible sale.
In Georgia, 31 percent of the Oconee National Forest, which drew more than 1 million visitors from the Atlanta area and the Carolinas, is on the study list.
About 220,000 acres of three forests in Washington state are on the list, much of it a magnet for visitors from the Tacoma and Everett areas. In Colorado, the study includes about 2,000 acres on the back of popular Aspen Mountain. Monument Peak, a delicate 3,000-acre "botanical area" in Oregon's Willamette National Forest, is on the list.
The list totals slightly more than 6 million acres in 39 states. Rex Resler, who joined the forestry association after a 30-year career in the Forest Service, reflected on what he sees as deep public sensitivity toward trees and wilderness.
"In some parts of the country there has been an immediate and almost violent reaction against the department's proposal," he said. "One thing this administration doesn't need is to stimulate more opposition from the environmental and conservation communities. I may be biased, but I don't see them getting the legislative authority they need to carry this off."