Land sale moves ahead despite protests
Last year, President Bush proposed a legislative initiative that would use the sale of around 300,000 acres of National Forest land to fund an extension to the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000 (SRS). Although plans were put in place to allow citizens to voice their opposition to the proposal, little has changed over the last year. President Bush's 2008 fiscal year budget includes a new legislative proposal called The National Forest Land Adjust-ment for Rural Communities Act that authorizes the sale of nearly 274,000 acres of National Forest land to fund an extension of the SRS through 2011.
"Around 20,000 acres have been dropped from the proposal," said Charlotte Wiggins, Mark Twain National Forest public relations director. "That is the biggest change between last year's proposal and the proposal this year."
Although around 26,000 acres have been trimmed from the original 300,000 acres, the number of acres identified for sale in Missouri has only decreased by eight acres. Last year, the proposal identified 21,566 acres and this year the proposal identifies 21,558 acres of the Mark Twain National Forest lands for sale.
In addition, Barry County's number of acres identified in the proposal has increased. Last year's proposal included 1,015 acres of forest lands in Barry County. This year, 1,078 local acres have been identified for the sale. Barry County's parcels will be sold in sections that range from around 20 acres to around 142 acres.
Public citizens can view a list of the proposed township parcels and a rough map of the parcels' positions at www.fs.fed.us/land/staff/rural_schools.s....
"We are not involved in the selection of parcels," said Wiggins. "The Department of Agriculture gave us a criteria, and we identified the parcels that fit that criteria. The majority of the parcels that are in the proposal this year are the same as last year, but that can change. Around half of North Carolina's proposed parcels were removed only days after the legislation went before Congress."
The selected forest parcels, which meet criteria identified in existing Forest Land Manage-ment plans, are not attached to continuous forest acreage. The lands are described as inefficient to manage because of location, size or configuration.
"I am vehemently opposed to the sale of even one acre of the National Forest," said Seligman Mayor Duane Corn. "This proposal comes from people who don't understand what a treasure the National Forest is. They say the money is going to be used to support rural schools and that is their way of getting away with selling it. It's a bad idea."
According to the new proposal, 50 percent of the land sale receipts will be used for conservation and acquisition activities within the state that the land sale receipts were collected in. The other 50 percent of the funds will be allocated for other National Forest purposes including the acquisition of land, conservation education, imprved access to public lands, wildlife and fish habitat improvement and restoration.
"The new proposal stipulates that half of the money, around $400 million, will be given directly to the states," said Wiggins. "That money will be distributed under direction of a national advisory group."
The governor of each state where receipts are collected will be asked to submit proposals for the use of the receipts to the secretary, who will then submit the requests to a National Advisory Committee that will make recommendations to the secretary regarding the proposals. The secretary will determine the final list of projects and acquisitions.
"The National Forest generates so much money just by the virtue of being there," said Corn. "People buy hunting tags and purchase gas to ride their four wheelers on the forest. If they sell the land, they will use the money and it will be gone. We won't have the money or the National Forest."
The proposal is currently being reviewed by the United States Congress, said Wiggins. The legislation must be approved before parcels will be sold. Last year, Congress did not approve the proposed legislation.
"If the legislation passes, certain groups will have dibs on the lands first," said Wiggins. "Then a public auction will be scheduled. Parcels in the west will be sold first. Hypothetically, parcels in the Mark Twain National Forest may never come up for sale."
In addition to approving the proposal, Congress will need to pass legislation giving the Forest Service authority to sell the land parcels. 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.
"If the forest is auctioned, people will buy the lands to develop them and a portion of our public lands will be gone forever," said Corn. "People don't just visit this area to come to Branson or Eureka Springs (Ark.). The Ozark Mountain country brings them down here."
Last year, a Federal Register notice requesting comments on the proposed land parcels was published on the Forest Service website.
"We don't have the statistics for the comments that were received last year," said Wiggins. "That was handled by the Department of Agriculture. I handled the individual phone calls only. I can tell you that I did not get one phone call in support of the proposal and I received thousands of calls."
Wiggins suggests local citizens interested in voicing objection to The National Forest Land Adjustment for Rural Communities Act write to a local Congressman.
"If we give them an inch of public lands they will take miles," said Corn. "Our quality of life will change for the worse forever. We need to write our Congressmen by the thousands. If they wanted to generate money by cutting some timber, I could understand, but if they sale the land, it will be gone forever. The National Forest belongs to everybody and that is the way it should stay."
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 four years, does not include any specific information regarding how schools will benefit from the proposed extension.
On Sept. 30, 2006, the SRS authorization ended. The last payment under the authorization was made in December of 2006.