Public forest land could turn private
Federal proposal involves the sale of over 1,000 acres of forest land in Barry County
By Lindsay Reed
President Bush's fiscal year 2007 budget includes a legislative proposal that would use the sale of around 300,000 acres of national forest land to fund an extension for the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000.
"We are getting a lot of inquiries on this proposal," said Jenny Farenbaugh, who is the district ranger for the Ava, Cassville, Willow Springs Forest Ranger District. "A lot of people think that the Forest Service has lands up for sale right now. This is a legislative proposal as part of President Bush's budget."
The Secure Rural Schools Act, also known as Payments to States, attempts to address the decline in timber harvest revenues, which are used for schools and roads. The proposed amendment, which would extend the act for an additional five years, does not include any specific information regarding how schools will benefit from the proposed extension.
"We need to see more of the benefit of this proposal than we are seeing," said Sen. Jim Talent. "I am very concerned about the way this bill is structured, because there is no guarantee that the revenue provided will stay within Missouri."
The proposal identifies certain parcels of United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service lands that are potentially eligible for sale. Of the 300,000 acres proposed nationwide, 21,566 acres of Missouri's 1.5-million acre Mark Twain National Forest are included in the proposal.
According to the Forest Service, around 1,015 acres of the proposed land is located in Barry County. Public citizens can view a list of proposed township parcels and a rough map of the parcels' positions at www.fs.fed.us.
"The website tool is absolutely useless," said Rich Chrismer, communications director for Talent's office. "Senator Talent is extremely frustrated by the lack of transparency on this issue. One of the answers he is seeking is which areas will be affected."
According to Chrismer, Talent remains in continuous contact with officials at the U.S. Forest Service in an attempt to clarify information.
"Senator Talent is holding the Forest Service's feet to the fire on this issue," said Chrismer. "He has been in touch with them all week trying to get them to correct the problems."
Although Talent is not opposed in principle to the sale of forest land, he is concerned about the amount of revenues Missouri schools will see.
The proposed land sale in Missouri would be the third largest in the country, but according to current infor-mation, Missouri would not receive a third of the proposed revenues, said Talent.
"Our schools need the money, and we view the Mark Twain as a national treasure and a Missouri treasure," said Talent. "I hope we can work together to equalize the formula."
According to the Forest Service website, the selected forest parcels meet criteria identified in existing Forest Land Management plans.
"One reason we're looking at these parcels is that they are isolated and not easily accessible," said Farenbaugh. "These are not parcels that are attached to continuous forest acreage. They are surrounded by private sectors."
The Forest Service describes the lands as inefficient to manage because of location, size or configuration.
"I don't believe they are going to sell it in 10-acre tracts," said Seligman Mayor Duane Corn. "I think they are going to sell it in big chunks. The millionaire will buy it and ruin it. Then the poor man won't have a place to hunt, hike, hunt mushrooms and see nature.
"Our kids grow up hunting and fishing and aren't out there cooking meth," said Corn. "They grow up to be better citizens because of that forest."
The portion of Mark Twain National Forest located in Barry County, between Roaring River State Park and Seligman, brings revenues to local economy, said Corn. He believes tourists come to the Ozarks not only for Branson, but to see the Ozark Mountains.
"That land wouldn't bring much tax money," said Corn. "It is a losing proposition if it is for money. The forest brings more money in just being out there.
"We bought and paid for the forest, and it is not for sale," said Corn. "We've been paying for it for 25 years. We voted in the tax and pay it to protect the forest."
If the proposal is enacted, Congress will have to pass legislation giving the Forest Service authority to sell the proposed land parcels.
In the proposal, the Forest Service will include stipulations that will give local and state government agencies and nonprofit land trust organizations the first right to buy the parcels at market value.
"This will give an opportunity for local counties to utilize the land," said Farenbaugh.
Properties offered competi-tively will be posted on the general services administration webpage at www.auctionrp.com/auctions2/. Sealed bid and oral auctions will be advertised through local newspapers, mailings and on Forest Service websites.
"We don't know what the Forest Service's role would be right now," said Farenbaugh. "This is simply a proposal to sell off federal lands. Congress is currently reviewing it and will decide whether to go through with it or not.
"To clarify, the parcels might not be the final parcels auctioned," said Farenbaugh. "Right now all we know is what is on the website."
A Federal Register notice requesting comments on the proposed land parcels has been published on the Forest Service website. Public citizens must voice their concerns and questions by March 30. Detailed information on how to submit remarks are included in the Federal Register notice.
According to the Forest Service website, all comments will be read and considered as the process moves forward.
Through the President's budget, the Forest Service will receive $4.9 billion for management of national forests and grasslands.
"As the Forest Service enters its second century of service, its focus is to continue to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, the impacts from invasive species, provide outstanding outdoor recreation opportunities, help to meet the nation's energy needs, improve watershed conditions and remain a world leader in forestry research and forest conservation," said Dale Bosworth, Forest Service chief. "The President's budget provides the agency with a sound approach for meeting these goals through partnerships and collaboration."
In addition to extending the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, the President's budget allocates $610 million to reduce hazardous fuels through the Healthy Forests Initiative, $5 million to help restoration work through grants to foster markets in biomass utilization and increased funding for forestry in the Pacific Northwest through the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan.
"We pay taxes and buy tags to go hunting," said Corn. "I would much rather add a dollar to my deer and turkey tags to give to the Forest Service.
"They don't understand how important the forest is to us," said Corn. "We have to make them realize how important it is to our way of life. If they sell the forest, it will diminish our way of life and what are we going to do? What are the deer and animals going to do?"
Comments can be e-mailed to SRS_Land_Sales@fs.fed.us, mailed to USDA Forest Service, SRS Comments, Lands 4S, 1400 Independence Ave., SW, Mailstop 1124, Washington, DC, 20250-0003, or faxed to 202-205-1604.