The Interior Department is still reviewing more than 2.4 million acres of surplus public lands in the West for possible disposal, including sale, over the next four years, although Secretary James G. Watt said the department no longer will be bound by the Reagan administration's revenue-raising targets.
Watt has been under increasing pressure from western politicians to resist thhe White House's Property Review Board and to consult with those who live near land designated for possible sale. But, armed with a letter from board Chairman Edwin L. Harper, Watt wrote western governors last week that the Bureau of Land Management had regained its freedom "to make all the decisions where land is offered for sale at fair-market value."
Watt raised the hackles of westerners late last year when he said the department was reviewing 35 million acres of BLM land for possible sale. Originally, Interior had a for-year sales target of $8 billion; that has been scaled down to about $2.5 billion.
Since the start of the Reagan administration, however, Interior has sold only 13,057 acres of public land, earning a total of less than $5,000. By comparison, Interior sold about 2,000 acres, on average, each year of the Carter administration, and 19,500 acres annually during the Ford and Nixon years.
After westerners complained to him about "administration policies set by the board," the secretary sought a way to divorce the agency's rooutine program of disposing of small tracts of land from the administration's sales effort, said Interior spokesman Harmon Kallman. Watt since has been quoted as saying that the administration's program was "stupid" and a mistake.
In his memo to the governors last week, Watt drew on a July 7 letter to him from Harper, which said the Property Review Board "has not requested that you consult with it in regard to transactions where land is sold for fair-market value. The board has not presumed . . . to become involved in the operational functioning of the agency in regard to the management of public lands."
Kallman, responding to published reports indicating that Interior was no longer going to put BLM land up for sale, said, "All we are saying is that we are out from under any dollar goals set by the Property Review Board."
But environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, noted that the Property Review Board will still control three of the four "traditional" decisions that a BLM land manager used to be able to make.
"This looks to me like a hoax until Interior officials take certain actions to change existing policy orders that bar exchanges, stop the transfer of property from BLM to the National Park Service or the National Wildlife Refuge system and prompt the use of budgetary targets," said Terry Sopher of the Wilderness Society.
The new policy "doesn't mean that we're not going to sell any land," Kallman said, "only that the prioritized push to sell land at BLM will be changed."