In an exercise in cynicism that borders on the irrational, two Republican senators from Western states initiated a move to sell off federal public lands to fund the Endangered Species Act.

The process would mean fewer public-land acres where wildlife can thrive and, consequently, more species threatened or endangered - which means additional money would be necessary to administer the ESA and accompanying pressure to sell even more public lands.The proposed law creates an ever-diminishing spiral that could lead to the end of public lands and much of our wildlife.

This ludicrous suggestion came from Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. He proposed selling Bureau of Land Management "surplus" lands to pay for portions of the reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act to the tune of $350 million over five years. Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho, picked up on it and attached the provision to the Senate budget resolution. It was adopted by the Senate.

In an interview Thursday, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt called the idea "a rehashing in new form old proposals to get rid of the public domain."

The BLM sells about $2.5 million worth of federal land per year, Babbitt said, to developing cities and towns that need the surrounding acreage to grow, to ranchers who want to buy scattered BLM acres that are within their property and rights-of-way for new highways and utilities.

When asked about "surplus" BLM lands, Babbitt responded: "Land management plans identify lands for disposal. They are typically fragments that are scattered way outside the areas where BLM lands are concentrated. . . . The typical way of disposal is to exchange them for in-holdings in BLM areas so you can block-up both the BLM and the private land."

To raise $350 million, the BLM would have to sell approximately 2 million "surplus" acres. Selling assets to finance any operating budget is very poor public policy. There will be pressure to continue selling public lands.

These so-called surplus lands are sometimes traded to great advantage to states and to the American people. The recent land exchange in Utah is a prime example of how surplus lands can be leveraged into win-win situations.

Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and Babbitt signed a 500,000 acre land-swap deal that traded parcels of the state's school trust lands within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument for money and federal lands outside the monument. It was a win for the state and a win for the American public.

Late last month, the Western States Land Commissioners Association held its meeting in Washington, D.C., where those present voted unanimously to adopt a resolution that opposes the sale of federal land to fund operating expenses for any purpose. The land commissioners are appointed or elected officials from 23 Western states. They understand land values and land use at ground level.

Ray Powell, commissioner of public lands for the state of New Mexico, who also serves as the president of the land commissioners association, said that this proposal would "pull the rug from under" New Mexico's trust land swaps to get the best dollar-for-dollar value for the state's schools, universities and hospitals.

New Mexico recently traded 100,000 acres with the BLM. The state gave up trust lands within Wilderness Study Areas with the idea of protecting those areas for the future while gaining BLM lands near communities that carry a much greater potential for producing income.

Powell commented: "It's ironic that our congressional leaders - many of whom have spent so much time indoors in Congress that they have lost their connection with the very land that they represent - miss the real value of it to people who still appreciate the natural world."

Domenici, who has been in Washington since 1972, may have lost his connection to the land and to the state, but he knows which wallets pay off. In a six-year period ending in 1996, he received more than half a million dollars in campaign contributions from industries that would benefit from selling off public lands: agriculture, construction, minerals and real estate.

Kempthorne has a similar indebtedness to those industries.

The congressmen have lost their connection to the American people, as well, cut off by the sharp edge of campaign dollars.

New York Times News Service