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Taxing our forests

President Bush's disdain for our national forests has hit a new low. First he made it easier for the timber industry to log public forests under a program mockingly named Healthy Forests. Now Bush wants to sell off pieces of national forests in 35 states, including Florida, for development.

The rationale for selling 300,000 acres of public forest land is to raise money for rural schools and roads. In the past, that money came from selling logging rights in the forests, but those revenues no longer meet the need. So the U.S. Forest Service identified parcels that it called "isolated or inefficient to manage" that could be sold for private use. The goal is to raise $800-million.

In Florida, nearly 1,000 acres in the Ocala National Forest have been listed, some of the land bordering pristine lakes. A couple of tracts are larger than 200 acres, raising the specter of substantial development within the national forest. It is more than U.S. Rep. Ric Keller, a fellow Republican whose district includes much of the forest, can stomach.

"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.

Floridians will be familiar with some of the other national forests slated for sales, including the Chattahoochee and Oconee forests in Georgia, Nantahala and Pisgah in North Carolina, and Cherokee in Tennessee. More than 21,000 acres would be put to bid in Colorado, where Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Udall questioned the logic. "It's like selling your homestead to pay your credit cards," Udall said.

In other words, the proposed sale doesn't make sense on any level. If revenues are running short to help rural communities, then Bush should scale back his tax cuts, which mostly benefit the wealthy. Instead, he is telling Americans they must either give up their beloved national forests or leave rural communities with unmet needs.

Congress, which has to approve the plan for it to go forward, shouldn't allow itself to fall into that trap. There are other ways to raise the revenue for rural schools while hanging on to our national forest land. And Floridians, who know something about the pressures development puts on public green space, shouldn't leave their representatives guessing where they stand on the issue.