Thursday, February 2nd, 2023
Thursday, February 2nd, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

Sale of Wayne parcels shelved for time being

By Bob Hecker Contributing Writer

Nelsonville, Ohio – Opponents of a Bush administration proposal
to sell 304,000 acres of national forest land, including 420 acres
of the Wayne National Forest in Ohio, can rest easy for now.

The administration has withdrawn the controversial land sale
proposal, which would have raised money to fund a five-year
reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools and Community
Self-Determination Act of 2000.

The SRS Act, due to expire at the end of the year, makes annual
payments to rural counties based on timber harvest revenue from
federal forest lands within their boundaries. National forests do
not pay property taxes, so this money compensates local governments
for forest land that has been removed from their tax rolls.

The money is used primarily to support rural schools and
roads.

Because timber revenue from federal lands has been declining,
the Bush administration’s fiscal 2007 budget for the U.S. Forest
Service included a proposal to sell national forest lands to
finance an extension of the SRS Act.

But the proposal faced heavy opposition. Phil Sammon, public
affairs officer for the Wayne, Ohio’s only national forest, said a
two-month public comment period that ended May 1 generated between
120,000-130,000 responses nationally, and less than 10 percent
favored the sales.

The 420 acres of Wayne forest land that were targeted for sale
are contained within eight non-contiguous parcels ranging from 22
to 151 acres. The parcels are scattered among six counties: two
each in Monroe and Washington counties, and one each in Gallia,
Lawrence, Perry, and Hocking counties.

Sammon said the eight parcels are remote, isolated, undeveloped
and surrounded by private property, making them difficult to manage
from an environmental standpoint.

During the public comment period, Wayne received about 250
responses, mostly from people concerned about whether the parcels
involved their favorite hiking trails or picnic grounds, Sammon
said. A few potentially interested buyers also called.

But Congress failed to act on the proposed land sales
legislation, essentially ‘letting it die a quiet death,’ Sammon
said. ‘That proposal has been put on the shelf.’

How or whether the SRS Act will be funded remains to be
seen.

‘All along, the proposed sale of the isolated parcels was really
about funding the SRS Act,’ said Dan Jiron, national press officer
for the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C. ‘The bottom line is
that there’s a lot of support for continuing the program, but
there’s also a lot of debate on how to fund it.’

Jiron said the Bush administration recently sent a letter to
Congress proposing a one-year extension of the SRS Act if Congress
could come up with an alternative means of funding it.

‘No other suggestions have been proposed at this time,’ Jiron
said. ‘Various possibilities are being studied, and when one is
found the program will go forward for one year. Then they’ll
evaluate the funding mechanism and consider future options.’

He noted that there is not much time left for Congress to act
before the end of the year. Any action will likely have to come
when it reconvenes after the November election.

The PR Newswire of United Business Media recently reported that
more than 200 school board members, school superintendents, county
commissioners, and other leaders from 23 states rallied on Capitol
Hill Sept. 14 to ask Congress to pass the one-year SRS Act
reauthorization before adjourning for the year.

The article quotes Robert Douglas, president of the National
Forest Counties and Schools Coalition, as saying that without
reauthorization, many rural communities and school districts ‘will
face a huge fiscal crisis that will likely result in drastic cuts
to school budgets and government services and, in some cases,
bankruptcy.’

Counties in states with larger expanses of national forest land
would be more adversely affected because they would stand to lose
more money.

The Wayne is a segmented forest divided into three unconnected
regions known as the Athens Ranger District, the Ironton Ranger
District, and the Marietta Unit.

Forest boundaries, established in 1934, encompass 834,000 acres
in 12 counties, but the Wayne owns only about 237,000 acres (28
percent) of the land despite years of trying to acquire new
holdings from willing sellers.

The 12 counties within the Wayne boundaries collectively
received $268,609 from payments in lieu of taxes for national
forest land from the federal government in 2005.

Some local officials, such as Monroe County Commissioner Gary
Hudson, think the county would be better off if some of the Wayne
lands were sold so the properties could be restored to county tax
rolls.

‘I’ve heard it estimated that property tax revenues would be
three to four times higher than what we get now from payments in
lieu of taxes,’ he said.

From a forester’s standpoint, Sammon said, the withdrawal of the
plan to sell forest land is both good and bad.

‘We hate to lose any piece of national forest land,’ he said,
‘but the sale of these isolated parcels would have freed some of
our appropriated money and allowed us to apply it to our larger
contiguous blocks of forest land for such things as wildlife
management.’

Could the land sale proposal be resurrected in the future?

‘The quote I heard from U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mark Rey (the
proposal’s chief architect) is that it would have to be repackaged
to make it more palatable to the general public,’ Sammon said. ‘If
it is reintroduced, I’m not sure how they can do that.’

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