Mr. Watt's good step

It is welcome news that the US Interior Department apparently has decided not to sell some 2.5 million acres of federally owned land. The planned offering had been part of a Reagan administration idea to bring in money by selling off a small amount of federally owned land.

Problems quickly developed. Land that from a Washington vantage point seemed unimportant often looked extremely important from the local perspective. For example, Rhode Islanders complained about Interior Department plans to sell two scenic spots on islands guarding the mouth of Narragansett Bay. And in the instance that apparently has brought about a reversal of Interior Department policy, ranchers in the West vociferously protested that sale to private interests of Western lands could cut off access to grazing land.

It is to his credit that Interior Secretary James Watt, if reports are correct, has withdrawn from sale the lands his department controls. However, that still leaves up for sale several million acres and buildings controlled by other government agencies, including the Forest Service and the General Services Administration.

Before any sales are made, it is important to consider fully the needs of people in the area, and of their state and local governments. If the land ought to remain in the public trust, then it should be held either by the federal government or for eventual purchase by state or local government. Or it could be given to them outright, as was done during more affluent times.

After careful consideration of local needs, it still may be proper to sell land, buildings, or mineral rights to private enterprise. In those cases it is important that the federal government, and thus the nation's taxpayers, receive in return a fair price - full market value. A few months ago the General Accounting Office, in a study disputed by the Interior Department, had reported that leases for coal mining were sold at considerably less than fair market value. Just as the sales decisions should be as fair as can be arranged, so too the selling prices should be equitable.

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