Cash needed....no offer refused?

By MATTHEW DALY
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - Looking for a sweet home in Sweet Home?
The Forest Service may have just the answer. Three houses in
Sweet Home, a former logging town in Oregon's Willamette Valley,
are for sale for $52,500, $69,000 and $78,000. The properties,
built in the 1950s for workers in the Willamette National Forest,
are no longer needed - and frankly, the Forest Service could use
the money.
Squeezed by record deficits, the decline of the timber industry
and the revenue that produced, as well as demands of the new
"healthy forests" law, the agency is looking to close some
recreation sites and sell offices and ranger stations that bustled
during the logging heyday decades ago but now sit idle.
Under legislation the Bush administration plans to push this
year the agency would sell hundreds of buildings, expanding on
permission Congress gave in 2001 to sell as many as 10 properties a
year. The first sale was completed in September 2004.
Officials hope to bring in up to $175 million over 10 years,
while reducing maintenance costs by as much as $90 million for an
inventory of 40,000 properties nationwide.
Some properties are already being advertised for sale on the
Internet, including a 5.2-acre site with six buildings in Medford,
Ore., near the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. The property -
a radio shop and warehouse that are no longer needed - could fetch
$3.5 million.
Also being considered for sale are a blighted building in Los
Angeles and a former ranger district complex in the Okanogan and
Wenatchee national forests in Washington state.
"We just can't afford to keep up everything we have," said
Richard Sowa, director of engineering for the Forest Service's
Pacific Northwest region.
The inventory "made sense 40 years ago, but it doesn't make
sense today," Sowa said. Forest Service staff in the Northwest has
dropped by almost half since 1990, mainly due to cutbacks in
logging that have slashed revenue from timber sales.
The agency also is marking some recreation sites such as
campgrounds for possible closure, as it struggles to meet President
Bush's proposal to cut its budget by 5.8 percent, to $4.07 billion.
The president's plan would boost spending by $56 million for
projects to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, but would
cut spending in other areas. Chief among the proposed cuts are $40
million for state and private forestry programs, $81 million for
maintenance of facilities and $20 million in land acquisition.
The moves underline the hard choices facing the Forest Service
in its centennial year.
"This budget is a tight budget, and our priority is healthy
forests and reducing the risk of catastrophic fire, so trade-offs
have to be made," said Hank Kashdan, the agency's budget chief.
Some critics, however, see darker motives.
Starving the Forest Service of cash forces it to keep only the
most lucrative sites and run public lands like a commercial
enterprise, said Scott Silver of the Oregon group Wild Wilderness.
"It's the complete perversion of the meaning of public lands,"
Silver said.
Some Western lawmakers and environmental groups say the proposed
cutbacks could limit the ability of local communities to fight
wildfires, even as officials prepare for what many expect to be one
of the worst wildfire seasons in memory.
"This is no time for the administration to cut the funding that
allows us to do the work we need to do to protect lives and
property," said City Councilman John Hummel of Bend, Ore.
He and other critics are especially concerned about cuts for
state and local wildfire assistance, noting that 85 percent of
lands at risk from wildfire are nonfederal.
But Forest Service officials say they have little choice.
As part of a long-term plan, all 155 national forests have been
directed to rank recreation sites by cost, popularity and how
closely they match what each forest designates as its likely
audience.
Low-ranking sites may be shut, have their seasons trimmed or
have services - such as garbage collection or restrooms -
eliminated.
The actions come as the Forest Service again emphasizes programs
to reduce fire risks by clearing small trees and underbrush that
can feed large wildfires. The agency "treated" more than 4.2
million acres last year through thinning or controlled burns and
expects to exceed that this year, said Dave Tenny, a deputy
undersecretary of Agriculture.
The emphasis on fire suppression may be attractive to a public
concerned about fires, but ultimately could prove
counterproductive, said Lisa Gregory, a natural resource policy
fellow at The Wilderness Society.
"The system is set up so essentially there's a bottomless pit
of money available for fire suppression," Gregory said. "So when
there is a big fire event, without limits the government will
allocate money to that fire."
In five of the past six years, the agency has exceeded its
suppression budget and borrowed from other programs, including many
designed to prevent fires from occurring.
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On the Net:
Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us/
General Services Administration link to Forest Service sites for
sale: http://www.auctionrp.com/auctions2/
A map showing sold Forest Service properties is available at:
http://wid.ap.org/interactives/forestproperties.html

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)