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Ocala National Forest acreage may be sold

The Bush administration plans to sell nearly 1,000 acres of Ocala National Forest - much of it waterfront property - alarming environmental groups who fear it could become prime land for vacation homes and other development.

The sale of 973 acres is part of a proposal to sell up to 300,000 acres in national forests in 35 states, to raise up to $800-million for a federal program that helps fund schools and roads in rural counties.

"This is a dumb idea all around," said Charles Lee, senior vice president of Audubon of Florida.

U.S. Forest Service officials say the land - 14 parcels in Marion County ranging in size from just more than an acre to almost 213 acres - is in scattered, isolated areas mostly along the western borders of the Ocala forest.

The officials also say that the 300,000 acres proposed for sale nationally represent a minuscule percentage of the 193-million acres of federal forest lands, including more than 383,000 acres in the Ocala forest.

The Ocala sales are the only ones proposed for Florida.

"This isn't anything we're going to enter into lightly," said Denise Rains, a Forest Service spokeswoman in Tallahassee.

But Lee said the state can't afford to lose any public lands, especially considering its rapid pace of development. Lee called any sell-off in the Ocala forest, which is spread out over parts of Lake, Marion and Putnam counties, a "slippery slope" that could lead to further land sales.

Preston Robertson, vice president and general counsel with the Florida Wildlife Federation, said that in a high-growth state such as Florida, undeveloped land is more valuable than ever.

The plan does require congressional approval, and U.S. Rep. Ric Keller, R-Orlando, whose district encompasses much of the forest, vowed to fight it.

"The idea of selling off nearly 1,000 acres of the Ocala National Forest is financially shortsighted, environmentally reckless and harmful to our water supply," Keller said.

Federal officials are still developing maps showing the exact locations of the sites.

Audubon of Florida has drawn up its own maps for the Ocala forest, which show several of the parcels bordering lakes.

The area where most of the parcels are is a checkerboard of private and public lands, which the Forest Service says makes them hard to manage.

Keller said he will submit a letter of opposition during the 30-day public comment period and try to persuade Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez to attach their names to it.

Nelson, a Democrat, has said he opposes the proposal. Martinez's office said the Republican has not made his position public, but "looks forward to hearing from Congressman Keller."

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