Uncle Sam's land sale -- not the bargain some expected

Dotting a 750-acre tract in the outlying woods of this affluent Boston suburb stand several abandoned concrete buildings that once housed ammunition for the Navy during World War II.

The parcel is one of hundreds nationwide that the federal government wants to sell. Interior Secretary James Watt has indicated there are no plans to sell more than 5 percent of federal lands. But that amounts to 35 million acres, an area roughly the size of Florida.

Hingham wants Massachusetts to buy the property and add it to a nearby state park. But Uncle Sam wants fair market value for the property, and no longer intends to donate it to states and localities or sell it at preferential prices. The state is concerned that it may not be able to pick up the tab.

Caught in the middle are Hingham residents, concerned that developers - who would be more willing than the state to pay the going rate for the land - might build hundreds of homes in the area, taxing schools and water supplies.

The high asking price for once-cheap land is but one hitch in the Reagan administration's plan to promulgate the largest sale of federal land in a century - a program that has sparked controversy from Bucks Harbor, Maine, to Hawaii's Waikiki Beach.

The federal government owns 744 million acres nationwide, nearly one-third of the country's land mass. The initial phase of the land-sales program was the listing of 307 parcels constituting 60,000 acres, announced July 1. Ranging from prime open acreage in downtown Honolulu to mothballed military bases and vacant office buildings, the property is seen as a gold mine of potential revenue by the goverment and a boon to the private sector. These ''real properties'' differ from so-called public lands, parcels of which will be identified in the next phase of the operation.

''It's hard to imagine a program that could make more money and not cost anyone his job or result in any budget cuts,'' says Bruce Selfon, acting director of the Property Review Board, a Cabinet-level committee established by the Reagan administration to determine which federal lands should be sold.

Sudden interest in the potpourri of property that has long lain idle is both economic and ideological. The ostensible purpose is to generate revenue to ease the national debt, and to unburden the government of the costly management of unproductive land. The program calls for revenues of $1.3 billion from property sales in 1983, and $4 billion or more for each succeeding year.

But beyond the lure of revenue, the program jibes with the Reagan administration's firm belief that the nation's resources can best be utilized by the private sector.

''The President's concern all along has been the intrusive presence of the government,'' says an Office of Management and Budget official. ''It is a good government initiative, not just a revenue initiative.''

Inclusion of public lands in the sell-off has some environmentalists squirming uncomfortably. Secretary Watt makes clear that there is no intention of selling off National Parks, wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, or wild and scenic rivers.

Still, some say that the talk of raising billions of dollars does not square with assurances of limiting land sales to property that is environmentally benign. ''Figure it out,'' says Rebecca Leet of the Wilderness Society, ''you're not going to make $17 billion by selling off a parcel here and a parcel there. And with the national debt at a trillion dollars, you can't hope but to remove a sliver of the interest on the debt.''

Robert Hall, an aide to Gov. Richard Lamm of Colorado, cites Western concerns over the emphasis some are placing on projected revenue. ''We'd feel a lot better if this were being driven by good land management policies rather than revenue considerations,'' he says.

In what may be a harbinger of future legal action, three environmental groups - the Washington-based National Wildlife Foundation and Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Conservation Law Foundation of New England, filed suit Sept. 30 in Boston to block federal government plans to sell 35 million of public lands.

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