ORLANDO-US Rep. Rick Keller, an Orlando Republican representing the state’s 8th District, and Charles Lee, senior vice president of the 106-year-old Audubon of Florida environmental group, say the Bush administration’s plans to sell off 973 acres in the 383,000-acre Ocala National Forest is flawed. Both also contend the deal would permanently damage the environment of the Central and North Florida regions and the entire state.

The forest, about 55 miles northwest of Downtown Orlando, covers Lake, Marion and Putnam counties and is the oldest (1908) designated National Forest east of the Mississippi River and southernmost in the continental US, according to the federal agency. The US Forest Service is proposing the land sale to help pay for new schools and roads in rural counties.

The agency estimates the sale of about 300,000 acres in national forests in 35 states could raise $800 million. The price equates to about $2,666 per acre or about six cents per sf. At that pricing, the 973 acres in the Ocala forest would generate an estimated $2.6 million

By comparison, Orlando industrial brokers tell GlobeSt.com waterfront land over the past two years located in desirable metro area locations has sold for an average $500,000 per acre, depending on location and infrastructure improvements.

“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 says. “Waterfront property near the Ocala National Forest would be in high demand [by developers] and growth would be difficult to control.”

Keller has the backing of the entire 18-member Florida Congressional delegation, Democrats and Republicans, in his effort to block the sale, Charles Lee, senior vice president of the 106-year-old Audubon of Florida group, tells GlobeSt.com.

“One of the most significant factors [in the land sale issue] is that just last year, a state task force, formed to make recommendations concerning the future of State Road 40 in the Ocala National Forest and the impending growth impacts on the forest, recommended strongly and unanimously that a major effort be initiated to buy up private inholdings in the Ocala forest, particularly those near State Road 40,” Lee tells GlobeSt.com.

“So [now] this Bush administration recommendation is the direct opposite of what a detailed study recommended for the area,” Lee adds. The task force included the forest managers of Ocala National Forest, as well as state agencies, local government officials and environmental groups.

Forest Service officials in Tallahassee say they will not be rushing into doing the sale which includes 14 parcels in Marion County sized from an acre to 213 acres. The dirt is mostly along the western fringe of the forest. Keller, Lee and the Florida Congressional delegation are asking the federal agency to withdraw its proposal.

In his letter to Mark Rey, Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment in the Department of Agriculture, Keller writes, “While we understand the administration’s desire to continue funding for local communities under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, we believe that selling previous National Forest land is not the best approach.”

Keller says the forest is “vital to Central Florida’s environment. It is the largest water recharge area in North Central Florida and absorbs and filters more pure drinking water than any other place in the area. Maintaining a clean water supply is a crucial issue for Florida in the coming century.” The Congressman says selling 973 acres “in this important watershed to temporarily pay for a budget shortage is nearsighted and irresponsible.”

Keller adds, “The money raised under this proposal will be less than half of what states and counties are currently receiving under the Secure Rural Schools Act. The $800 million that could be raised in the proposed 306,000-acre sell-off nationwide would not even be enough to cover the short-term needs of Marion County, let alone communities across the country.”

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