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Forest land sale revived by lawmakers, environmentalists

POSTED: April 16, 2017 10:02 p.m.
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U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville

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Thirty parcels of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest would be sold if a bill from Georgia lawmakers introduced this legislative session clears Congress.

Sen. David Perdue, R-Georgia, and Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, have restarted a years-old effort to sell 30 isolated parcels of the forest, almost 4,000 acres of federal land spotting the area around the national forest in Northeast Georgia, to willing buyers.

Legislation from the lawmakers would require the U.S. Forest Service to use any cash from property sales to purchase more appropriate land in or around the existing national forest, which proponents argue make the land sale a wash for the Georgia-Tennessee forest.

Most of the tracts identified for the potential sale are fewer than 100 acres — specks compared to the 867,510 acres of national forest in Georgia.

“Many are surrounded by residential development with no public access, or are difficult to access and manage for other reasons because of their locations,” said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Judy Toppins.

Forest Service staff worked with The Nature Conservancy’s Georgia branch to identify the pockets of national forest ripe for sale. The Conservation Fund and the Trust for Public Land are also involved in the effort.

The Nature Conservancy has worked behind the scenes for about six years, lobbying lawmakers and cajoling support from other, skeptical environmental groups, trying to get the legislation through Congress, according to its director of government relations, Thomas Farmer.

Farmer acknowledged that selling national forest land is an unconventional project for a conservation group.

“It’s kind of counterintuitive, but when we looked at these tracts that … the Forest Service helped identify, we realized there’s a whole host of reasons why it’s not really good conservation land,” Farmer said.

In their March rollout of Senate Bill 571 and House Resolution 1434, Perdue and Collins said the sale of approximately 3,841 acres would benefit the U.S. Forest Service, nearby landowners and local governments. Almost all of the land, 3,392 acres, is located in northern Georgia.

“These updated park boundaries will make the land more manageable for our park rangers and improve opportunities for hunting, fishing and hiking within the forest,” Perdue said. “Equally as important, a cohesive park boundary and management area is a more efficient use of taxpayer money.”

In addition to cutting waste, the sale would provide “more recreation opportunities for hunters, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts,” Collins said.

The bills would allow the Forest Service to use the cash from the market-value land sales to purchase new property within the forest, according to the legislation, adding to the land available for public use within the 1,354-square-mile national forest spanning the border of Georgia and Tennessee.

Farmer said the Georgia conservation group would not support the proposal without that strict limitation on how the cash from the sales is used.

“Because then we’re just selling national forest land for nothing,” he said.

Lawmakers and The Nature Conservancy argue that the isolated parcels have lost their usefulness as national forest land because of encroaching development.

Farmer said the sale is a new way of bringing money into the national forest to help bolster conservation through the purchase of private land in or near the existing forest.

The Forest Service’s Toppins said it’s normal for the agency to add to the national forest. In 2014, the agency bought 21 acres in Habersham County to give easier access to a wilderness area and the Soque River. Other purchases have been made along the Chattahoochee River in popular trout fishing spots.

A similar effort to sell the 30 parcels was last attempted in 2015 and has the support of at least one environmental conservation group, The Nature Conservancy’s Georgia branch, which also supported the previous bills. It was first proposed by former Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia.

Selling the land and purchasing other parcels would allow the Forest Service and other groups to “better steward Northeast Georgia’s natural resources and provide more benefits to all Georgians,” said Deron Davis, the state-level executive director of The Nature Conservancy.

Five other Georgia lawmakers support the sale, including Sen. Johnny Isakson.

In the House, H.R. 1434 sits in the House Agriculture Committee. The Senate version has been referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. There’s been little action on either bill since they were introduced.

The bills haven’t been actively opposed by the broader conservation community, according to Farmer.

“We had to explain it, but I think once we explain it people get it,” he said.

Land bills are usually combined into larger packages of legislation that in the past several years have had trouble clearing Congress because of the divided political leadership in Washington, D.C.



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