President George Bush’s proposed sale of 300,000 acres forest service lands may have been just a trial balloon for a larger land sale, as Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA) suggested in late March.
But the balloon seems to be deflating quickly. Most of the Appalachian region’s governors, senators and representatives speaking on the issue have opposed selling national forest land. The Bush proposal, first raised in February and forwarded as formal legislation in mid March, compensates for a program that funded rural roads and schools from timber sales.
Yet at a time when the Appalachian region is focusing on tourism as a leading opportunity for economic growth, Boucher said, “any effort to diminish the national forests as a recreational treasure must be strongly resisted.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) also opposed the sale, saying that selling off parts of the Cherokee National Forest to pay for roads and schools would be “like selling the back 40 to pay the rent.”
Rep. Charles Taylor (R-NC) said the sale was “not going to happen” and criticized the Forest Service for not taking local needs into account. But his criticism cane under fire from likely Democratic opponent Heath Shuler as not being firm enough.
The reaction to the sale has been so pointed, from both Republicans and Democrats alike, that Mark Rey, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and environment, seemed perplexed by the controversy. In Congressional testimony, Ray said that “conveying land” in and out of federal ownership took place frequently.
But opponents of the sale, such as Boucher, pointed out that these were usually swaps of outlying forest service lands for private land isolated inside a national forest, and almost never involved privatizing public lands.
Among many public officials who have also opposed the land sales are four former U.S. Forest Service chiefs who led the agency for 22 years under Republican and Democratic presidents. The former chiefs said that selling off national forest land “would establish a precedent contrary to that of the last 102 years.”