By Steven Ross Johnson

Wescom Wire Service

A Senate hearing to review the U.S. Forest Service's proposed budget for the coming year Wednesday quickly turned into a debate over the agency's plans for deep staff cuts and increased sales of public lands.

The agency has come under congressional fire lately because of a proposal to raise $800 million of its budget through sales of public lands. Half would pay for an extension of the county timber subsidies program, while the other half would pay for land acquisition, conservation education and habitat improvement programs.

Also troubling the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources members was a proposed $64.2 million reduction in the agency's budget from the current $4.2 billion to $4.13 billion in fiscal year 2008. Department of Agriculture Under-secretary Mark Rey acknowledged it could result in a loss of about 2,100 of the Forest Service's 35,000 staff positions.

Rey said lands would be put up for sale based on their lack of ecological value.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., one of the land sale proposal's most vehement opponents, dismissed the plan as an effort to bring back something that was overwhelmingly rejected in bipartisan fashion last year.

andquot;What's your sense of how the president intends to get bipartisan support?andquot; Wyden asked Rey and Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell at the hearing. andquot;Republicans are not going to embrace a land sale proposal.andquot;

Rey pointed out that in the last five years the Forest Service had sold only 1 acre for every 3 acres it had acquired.

andquot;If someone wants to say that they are philosophically opposed to the selling of public lands, then basically you are saying that you are against what has already been going on for the last 60 years,andquot; Rey said.

Critics say the plan has the potential of leading to a mass land giveaway, selling off parts of national forests cheaply to the private sector.

Alan Front, a senior vice president for the conservation advocacy group Trust for Public Land, said land sales can be an effective means of generating the revenue to acquire more ecologically sensitive areas. But he warned that those types of transactions should only be used for ecological purposes, and not as a andquot;checkbookandquot; to pay for other government programs.

Rey has acknowledged that land targeted for sale could include areas that are costly and difficult to maintain.

But Front said the Forest Service should remember that andquot;the public lands belong to everyone.andquot;

andquot;And so, to take a capital asset that belongs to everyone and to sell it and use the proceeds to pay for operating expenses,andquot; he said, andquot;is kind of like mortgaging your house to pay the grocery bill.andquot;