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A Commentary on the National Forest Land Conveyance for Rural Communities Act

By Beth Wellington, Published on June 6, 2006

Beth Wellington is a Roanoke, Virginia based poet and journalist. She is a contributing editor to the New River Free Press, a book reviewer for the Roanoke Times and a member of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative (SAWC) and the Appalachian Studies Association. From 1980 to 1997, she was the founding Executive Director of New River Community Sentencing, Inc. in Christiansburg, Virginia and its predecessor, New River Community Action's Community Sentencing Program. She contributes to both SourceWatch.org and Wikipedia.org. Beth's blog on culture and politics is The Writing Corner.

Ohio Landscape Productions film about the Wayne National Forest, A Forest Returns: The Success Story of Ohio's Only National Forest as Told by Ora E. Anderson is winning kudos at film festivals across the country. Ironically, the Wayne is one of the targets for the President's proposed National Forest Land Conveyance for Rural Communities Act. Bush's fiscal year 2007 budget includes this plan to have the Forest Service sell tracts of National Forest in order to temporarily fund Public Law 106-393, the "Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act," first signed by President Clinton in October 2000 to amend U.S. Code Title 16, Section 500 regarding payments to the states by the National Forest.

As Mike Soraghan's February 7, 2006 Denver Post article, "Bush calls for sell-off of Western public land" quotes Representative Mark Udall, (D-CO), "It's like selling your homestead to pay your credit cards."

A table of the lands potentially for sale shows that 419 acres are listed in the Wayne. Here in Virginia, 5720 acre are listed in the Jefferson and George Washington National Forests. The page is indexed by states if you scroll up to the top.

It's hard to find anyone in favor of the sell-off outside the Bush Administration, In the March 30, 2006 Roanoke Times, Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, which would consider any bill introduced in Congress, "This proposal just won't work."

On March 13, 2006 the four living former chiefs of the Forest Service sent an open letter to all members of Congress. "It should be clearly recognized that such an action would establish a precedent contrary to that of the last 102 years and enacts a change to existing law which forbids such action.

"The prime consideration is whether National Forest lands should be auctioned off for any for any other purpose beyond overall enhancement of the National Forest System? The coupling of a proposal for selling off public lands to fund other programs, no matter how worthwhile those programs, is a slippery slope that could, and likely would, be used to fund other worthwhile causes as time goes by and budgetary pressures increase. For that reason alone, we strongly recommend against taking this first step of auctioning off National Forest lands to pay for other government programs."

Here's some background. Under the current Act, the federal government uses general appropriations to supplement receipts from timber sales in order to support schools and roads in rural communities with national forest acreage. The Forest service website has a county-by-county breakout of payment levels from 2006.

The Act expires in September of 2006. Bills were introduced to reauthorize the Act in the Senate (S.267.IS) and the House (H.R.517.IH ) in 2005. You can find a copy of the remarks upon introduction in the the Congressional Record for February 2, 2005 on Senate pages 898-9. The Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests held a hearing March 8.

In the House, the bill was referred on February 2 to the Committee on Agriculture, and in addition to the Committee on Resources. On March 15, The Agriculture's Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry took up the bill. On February 16, the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health took up the measure and held a hearing and a mark up session on May 18 and reported the bill. No further action was taken.

Rather than renewing the Act in its current form, the President proposes to cut off the use of general appropriations and replace them temporarily with the sell off of federal lands, before phasing out the assistance over the course of the next five years. According to Agriculture Undersecretary and former timber industry lobbyist Mark Rey, the President's proposal would "provide counties with about half the revenue they received for schools and roads during the previous five years."

The Forest Service's February 28 request for public comment can be found starting on page 10004 of the Federal Registrar. The comment period originally ended March 30, but has been extended to May 1. Email comments to SRS_Land_Sales@fs.fed.us. Fax them to (202) 205-1604, or mail them to USDA Forest Service, SRS Comments, Lands 4S, 1400 Independence Ave., SW., Mailstop 1124, Washington, DC 20250-0003. Contact for more information is Assistant Director of Lands Cynthia R. Swanson, who can be reached in the Washington Office by telephone at 202-205-0099.

The National Environmental Trust (NET) posted its unfavorable analysis of the sell off on February 17. It includes not only sales by the Forest Service, but increased authority for the Bureau of Land Management to dispose of assets through the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act of 2000, Public Law 106-248. NET also posted reactions by legislators and others, last updated on March 1, as well as an overall analysis of Bush's F2007 budget.

February 19, 2006 George Lea, President of the Public Lands Foundation, weighed in against the proposed sale of Federal Lands in his column in the group's newsletter. The group has also Posted its critique of the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act. Also opposing the sale are organizations such as the International Mountain Bicycling Association and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

State and local government officials have joined in protesting the plan, according to such papers as the Colorado's Summit Daily News. Tennessee's Kingsport Times News, Missouri's Springfield News-Leader.

February 9, the Wilderness Society posted a news release criticizing the plan. On March 16, it issued an analysis of the land sale bill which emphasizes the following problems:

The Wilderness Society has posted a form at its website to contact the Forest Service and one to contact Congress. The Sierra Club has also posted a form to contact the Forest Service, as has the National Resources Defense Counci (NRDC).

Said Robert Kennedy Jr., NRDC Senior Counsel, "America's rural schools deserve financial support -- but destroying our legacy of national forests to pay the bills is unconscionable."