An interesting political anomaly is being played out in Georgia and Washington: Politicians in the latter want to sell off chunks of national forest — almost 4,000 acres of it — to private purchasers, and conservationists in the former aren’t opposing it. In fact, some of them are active advocates for it.
Here’s the situation, as reported Sunday in the Gainesville Times:
Members of Georgia’s congressional delegation, including both its U.S. senators and Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, are backing legislation that would sell 30 isolated tracts of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest.
Here’s the hook: Money from the sale would have to be used to buy more land in or around the existing national forest, making the deal, proponents argue, ultimately more a land swap than a land sale.
Moreover, it would likely be a tradeoff advantageous to conservation interests, according to Judy Toppins of the U.S. Forest Service, because most of the parcels at issue are National Forest land in name only. “Many are surrounded by residential development with no public access,” Toppins said, “or are difficult to access and manage for other reasons because of their locations.”
The Nature Conservancy is advocating for the bill, and has been lobbying for years for such a deal, according to the Times, by explaining its rationale to predictably skeptical environmental interests.
“It’s kind of counterintuitive,” Nature Conservancy’s Thomas Farmer told the newspaper, “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.”
If the legislation passes, the Forest Service would use the money from the land sales to buy other property, in a transaction that would actually increase the amount of national forest land available for public use over what exists now.
The clause in the bill requiring that cash paid for national forest land be used to buy more national forest land was imperative, Farmer said; otherwise, “we’re just selling national forest land for nothing.” Deron Davis, executive director of the Nature Conservancy’s Georgia chapter, said the deal would “better steward Northeast Georgia’s natural resources and provide more benefits to all Georgians.”
If the country’s greater environmental and conservation interests aren’t rallying around the idea, Farmer said they also aren’t opposing it: “We had to explain it, but I think once we explain it people get it.”
Even so, the idea of selling off public land to private interests, whatever the stipulations, can’t be an easy sell to an American environmental community that has precious little reason to trust the federal government’s commitment to conservation, especially now.
But the Nature Conservancy and the Forest Service have been working together on this for years, and efforts to sell these small parcels of Forest Service land have been stymied, mostly by partisan politics, for about that long. If there’s a poison pill in there somewhere, it’s been well hidden for a long time.