By Tom Pelton, The Baltimore Sun
May 5--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
"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
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
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
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,
"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
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
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
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
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
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,
"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
"But the problem is, money talks."
Copyright (c) 2006, The Baltimore Sun
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.