August 31, 2007

Government Patching Up Public Lands

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government is buying 9,000 acres in seven Western states, the first such purchases under a 2000 law intended to help land managers patch up fragmented national parks, forests, refuges and other public lands.

Among the 19 places being purchased for $18 million from private landowners are lands around the Coachella Valley in California, the North Platte River in Wyoming, the Santa Fe River in New Mexico and the Snake River in Idaho. Other states where the government is buying lands under this program are Arizona, Colorado and Oregon.

The lands will be added to those overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service, all part of the Interior Department, and by the Forest Service, part of the Agriculture Department.

Officials say the purchases also will help protect bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and other species, along with recreation and cultural resources like hiking trails and prehistoric rock paintings.

"What we're increasingly trying to do is to create unfragmented landscapes, and this will help do that," Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett said in an interview Friday.

Congress established the fund in 2000 to buy private "inholdings" from people willing to sell lands to the government that are surrounded by or next to public ranges, forests, parks or refuges managed by those four agencies.

It also authorized those agencies to sell fragmented or isolated parcels that are difficult to manage or other lands close to urban areas that might be better used and valuable for residential or commercial developments.

In 2000, BLM identified 3.3 million acres that could be sold off under the program. It manages almost 260 million acres in 12 Western states — about one-eighth of the land in the United States.

BLM figures show that it has raised nearly $95 million from such sales so far, about half of it in Nevada. Of that money, 80 percent by law must be used to buy other public lands; the other 20 percent can be used for BLM administrative costs.

But the Bush administration, eyeing the possibility of $350 million in BLM land sales, has proposed amending the law to let the government use most of the money for deficit reduction, according to The Wilderness Society, an advocacy group.

Scarlett urged Congress to reauthorize the 2000 Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act, which is set to expire in 2010.

"It allows us to actually acquire lands for the purposes that the public land agencies exist," she said. "It just uncomplicates matters for them."