National forest lands could go up for sale

ROANOKE, VA. — ROANOKE, Va. -- Along a rocky path of the Appalachian Trail, Sherman Bamford pointed to a mist-shrouded mountainside in the Thomas Jefferson National Forest, where 121 acres could soon be up for public auction.

The land is on a list of about 300,000 acres of national forest the Bush administration has proposed selling to help fund the operation of rural schools and offset cuts in federal aid.


Forest Service officials said yesterday that they do not expect to sell more than about 175,000 acres in order to reach their goal of raising $800 million. But auctioning any of the land would reverse more than a century of federal policy and law barring such sales of national forests.

Bamford and other critics contend that selling the public lands would not only be a betrayal but could set a dangerous precedent of liquidating federal property to fund other struggling programs, such as Medicare, as the government wrestles with an outsized budget deficit.


"These public lands were meant to be held in long-term trust for the future generations," said Bamford, coordinator of an advocacy group called Virginia Forest Watch. "If this land is sold, we'll never get it back, and it will become a private development instead of a place where the public can picnic, hike, camp and fish."

Forest Service officials say the parcels targeted for possible sale in 35 states are remote, less-important tracts and the land represents a fraction of 1 percent of the 193 million acres of national forests.

"These parcels are isolated and inefficient to manage," said Heidi Valetkevitch, spokeswoman for the Forest Service. She said that public comment is influencing which land remains on the auction list and that criticism about some choices has resulted in a few being removed.

Cash from the sales would be distributed over the next five years to local governments that have been hurt by declining revenues from timber sales on federal lands. State and local governments since 1908 have received a cut from these sales, but logging has dropped since the 1980s in part because of more restrictive Forest Service policies and environmental lawsuits, federal officials said.

Payments to states fell from $1.5 billion in 1989 to $557 million in 1998. Congress in 2000 tried to dampen this blow by approving an additional $1.9 billion over five years, but that supplement is scheduled to end in September.

Most of the land on the auction list is in western states such as California, Idaho and Colorado, and they would receive much of the money from the land sales, based on how much timber is sold in their national forests.

But 5,721 acres are in Virginia, and 4,827 are in West Virginia. Maryland has no national forests.

The administration's plan would need congressional approval by September to become part of the 2007 federal budget. But several lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, have voiced objections.


The House Appropriations Interior and Environment subcommittee endorsed a 2007 spending bill yesterday that does not include selling the forest service land.

Opponents include Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who chairs the House agriculture committee that oversees the U.S. Forest Service budget.

"The idea of selling capital assets to pay for short-term needs sets a bad precedent," Goodlatte wrote in an opinion article published in the Roanoke Times. "As they say in rural America, 'You don't sell your seed corn for spending money.'"

Despite the opposition, the proposal is still alive. It could return later if western congressmen can't find another funding source for their schools, according to the National Wildlife Federation, an advocacy group.

Sean McMahon, director of national land stewardship campaigns for the group, said that whether the government sells 175,000 or 300,000 acres, it would still betray the public's interest.

"The people who hunt and fish and camp on these lands will really reject this as an attempt to sell off the places where they love to recreate and take their children and families to enjoy the outdoors," McMahon said.


Four former chiefs of the U.S. Forest Service co-wrote a letter to Congress on March 13 that denounced the idea. In an interview, one of the authors, Michael Dombeck, director of the Forest Service from 1997 to 2001, criticized the administration for this and other moves that he said show a pattern of stripping protections from public lands.

Bush repealed federal protection for almost 60 million acres of national forests that had been off-limits to road construction, logging and mining under a "roadless rule" created at the end of the Clinton administration.

The number of permits to drill for gas and oil on federal lands has more than tripled under the Bush administration, according to federal data.

Meanwhile, tax cuts and the soaring costs of wars have created pressure for government agencies to slash programs and sell land, Dombeck said.

"It's a matter of priorities, benefiting the wealthy through tax cuts at the cost of the assets of everyday citizens," Dombeck said. "Because we all, rich or poor, own a few acres of public lands. And it is this irreplaceable piggy bank that is being emptied."

Dan Jiron, spokesman for the Forest Service, disputed criticism that his agency has become less protective of public lands. The administration's decision last May to replace the "roadless rule," which was struck down in 2003 by a federal district court in Wyoming, included provisions to solicit each state's input on the level of protection it wanted for its land. That local input, which must be submitted by November, is a key improvement, said Jiron.


"We will have roadless protection in all the states that want it," Jiron said. "Allowing oil and gas drilling is part of our mission."

All national forests are open to the public for hiking, camping and hunting. The sites selected for auction in 120 national forests were picked because they are removed from other forest service land and often have less desirable terrain, such as steep slopes, said Valetkevitch, the Forest Service spokesman.

Nancy Ross, a district ranger with the Forest Service, said her agency decided the 121 acres in the Jefferson National Forest about a half-hour northwest of Roanoke are appropriate for sale because the parcel is an island, surrounded by private land.

The land is on a side of North Mountain across a valley from the Appalachian Trail. The scenic walking route - owned mostly by the federal government - stretches for 2,160 miles through the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia, and millions of people hike along it each year.

The agency conducted surveys of the land in 1998 when a local landowner and developer expressed an interest in swapping the parcel with land he owns nearby, Ross said.

Although the Forest Service has never sold land, it has often used land swaps to trade isolated parcels for land next to national forests that would expand the public lands, Ross said.


The surveys found that the land - a steep, rocky slope, thick with yellow pine - was not critical habitat for any endangered species, Ross said.

"This piece of land is appropriate to be taken out of public ownership, and there is nothing from the surveys of the land that would lead us to any other conclusion," Ross said.

Local residents protested the proposed swap. Ultimately, the Forest Service decided the parcels involved weren't of comparable value and in 1998 it rejected the land swap, said Ross.

Under the Bush administration's new proposal, states and land-trust organizations would be allowed to bid on the land. If the parcel doesn't receive what the Forest Service considers fair market value, the bidding would be opened up to anyone, federal officials said.

David Turner, a Daleville, Va., developer who wanted the Jefferson National Forest tract back in 1998, appears to still be interested in the land, said Arnold Covey, Roanoke County's development director.

Turner recently applied to the county for approvals to build up to 100 homes on the land he owns next to the national forest. But access to Turner's site would be difficult unless he can buy the federal parcel, Covey said.


Turner did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The Roanoke County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution opposing the sale March 14, saying development on the wooded mountainside would destroy views from the Appalachian Trail and a gateway into Roanoke.

"It's invaluable," county administrator Elmer Hodge said of the public land. "The beauty of this valley is one of the things that makes us unique. Tourism is a big part of our local economy, and for us to destroy one of the things that brings people here doesn't make sense."

The section of the Jefferson National Forest targeted for sale overlooks the verdant Catawba Valley. It's a quiet nest of rolling pastures and old farms in the mountains of western Virginia, with a wandering brook, a white church and a cluster of houses.

At the foot of the hill is the Catawba Valley General Store, which is more than a century old. It boasts a "live bait" sign in the window near a faded Dr. Pepper clock, whose hands are frozen at 7:53.

Time seems to stand still there. Neighbors catch up on local gossip as they browse creaky shelves of pickled sausages, fishing hooks, salmon eggs, pocket knives, horse tack and International Harvester caps.


Mark Brewer, co-owner of the store, said lots of people in the rural crossroads love to hunt and hike in the section of the national forest targeted for sale. The rugged hillside behind the store is teeming with black bear, turkeys, coyotes, deer and fox, he said.

"I'd say about 90 percent of our customers are against selling that land," said Brewer, 36. "I love to go up there just to run my dogs. People are afraid the government is going to sell off the mountain just to have it developed."

Beside him at the gas pump, Steve Carper Jr., 46, nodded. A county building code inspector, Carper said he enjoys bear hunting on the forest service land.

"It's beautiful up there. You got dogwood trees blooming now, buds coming out all over the place," Carper said. "Selling this land off would destroy a great big part of our rural heritage.

"But the problem is, money talks."