U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, has introduced a bill that would allow the sale of 3,841 “underused” acres in the Gainesville-based Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests.
It’s a move, Collins said, that would “boost Northeast Georgia’s recreation and economy.”
“This bill would eliminate federal waste, saving taxpayer money and provide more opportunities to Georgians from around the state to enjoy our beautiful region,” he said.
“This is a win at both the state and local levels,” Collins said. “It’s an economic win, too, that will create investment and jobs.”
Under House Resolution 470, the Forest Service would sell remote tracts at market value, then use the proceeds to buy other, more usable lands with the intent to improve recreational activities, such as fishing, hunting and hiking.
“Nearby counties, currently providing unreimbursed services to federal lands, would also begin to collect tax revenue from new private owners,” states a news release from Collins’ office.
Asked for a comment on the bill, which is now under consideration by the House Agriculture Committee, the Forest Service said it does not take a position on pending legislation.
However, Betty Jewett, the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests’ forest supervisor, did say, “We appreciate Congressman Collins’ support for the Forest Service and public lands in Georgia.”
Judy Toppins, the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests spokeswoman, said the national forest “routinely evaluates parcels of land for potential land adjustment opportunities, including acquisition, conveyance or exchange under agency authorities.
“These adjustments are based on our forest plan goals and objectives, such as providing public access and enjoyment of publicly owned lands.”
At the request of Congress, the national forest provided a “select list of tracts that had been previously identified as potentially incompatible with forest plan objectives, primarily because they are disconnected, isolated tracts or have restricted public access,” Toppins said.
Two environmental groups, The Nature Conservancy and The Conservation Fund, support the bill, formerly known as the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest Land Adjustment Act.
The bill calls for a “unique solution that more effectively conserves valuable forest lands, reduces strain on county budgets, enhances economic activity and allows greater public access to and enjoyment of one (of) Georgia’s most treasured places,” the two groups state in a joint news release.
With the revenues generated, the Forest Service will be able to identify critical tracts within the forest that are for sale by willing sellers and — if added to the Chattahoochee-Oconee forests — would improve forest management, wildlife habitat, water quality and public recreation.
“Additionally, the acquisition of inholdings within the national forest can help reduce the strains on county budgets, which can come under pressure particularly if lands, which are located deep within the forest and are hard to access, are developed and require county services,” the groups said.
“There’s precedent for this,” said Thomas Farmer, senior policy adviser for the The Nature Conservancy in Georgia. “There’s been other state-specific bills where Forest Service land has been sold.”
The “key for us was to make sure, without a shadow of a doubt, that if we did sell some of these disconnected lands, the proceeds would go directly back to land acquisition in our own national forest.”