By : Marie Dunkle, ForestWatch Board President
In December of 2018 the “Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018,” colloquially known as the “Farm Bill,” was passed into law by the U.S. Congress. A section of that Public Law entitled “Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest Land Adjustment” allows the USFS to sell isolated tracts of Georgia National Forest land that are disconnected from core lands. When this legislation was proposed by Representative Doug Collins in 2015, Georgia ForestWatch took a neutral position with the understanding that the tracts of land selected for sale would be ones that are disconnected from core Forest lands (i.e. surrounded by private land) and that present Forest access issues for Forest Service (FS) management as well as public recreation users of the Forest. Importantly, we also understood that the law would require the FS to retain proceeds from the sales to acquire higher-value conservation, timber and recreational lands in Georgia.
The 2018 Law authorizes sale of 30 specific tracts covering 3,841 acres of National Forest across the State of Georgia. The size of these land tracts range from 30 acres to over 800 acres. We recently learned that as early as 2011, the FS began meeting with county commissions in north Georgia to get buy-in on the specific land tracts to be sold. This year the FS established a working group to move forward with the Act. Members of this working group include the FS, Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Georgia Forestry Commission and the Georgia Department of National Resources.
Georgia ForestWatch representatives, along with representatives of the Chattooga Conservancy and Rabun Trout Unlimited, recently met with CONF Supervisor Betty Jewett to learn about plans and processes for these land sales and acquisitions. Supervisor Jewett made it clear that she will manage all aspects of the land sale process and is the final, sole decision-maker on whether or not to sell any or all of the 30 tracts designated. She explained that the land sale will proceed according to procedures in the Forest Service Handbook, section 1909, and although “National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements will be met,” NEPA applicability is limited. The discovery process for each land tract, according to Jewett, will consist of environmental review, including archeological, botanical and biological assessments, and hazardous waste and property line surveys by FS contractors. Supervisor Jewett referred to the process to be followed as “Environmental Due Diligence” and said that their analysis will be shared with working group partners and included in the public notice and comment period for the land sales. According to the FS, the discovery process with regard to the potential sales has not yet started and no land buyers have been identified. Land sales under this Act will be a multi-year process, and the Forest Supervisor expects to engage brokers to support a bidding process for land tract sales; or another real estate sale process may be used.
Following sale of lands, the FS will use sale dollars to purchase other land in Georgia, not necessarily land in the county where National Forest land was sold. The Law also allows for the option of land exchange instead of sale. Although the FS has a list of possible land tracts for purchase or exchange, no action has taken place, nor is action on purchases expected for about two years, according to Jewett.
Jewett is directing those with specific land interests to their FS District Ranger; this includes those with suggestions for exchanges and lands to purchase as well as environmental concerns about any of the 30 designated land tracts.
Where Georgia ForestWatch Stands
With an open mind, GAFW sees some positive aspects in the authorized land sales under the 2018 Farm Bill. We recognize that where small isolated Forest tracts are disconnected from core lands, there is opportunity for the FS to purchase or exchange better parcels that can be managed, used and protected. Also, proceeds from some of these land sales may allow the FS to leverage other funds to obtain larger/more valuable tracts. For example, the sale proceeds can be combined with foundation grants to other partners who are completing restoration work.
However, the land sales also leave us concerned. On a National level, we observe efforts to sell off public lands elsewhere, and we are concerned about the precedent that the CONF land sales may present here in Georgia. The arrangements and selection of land tracts for sale under the 2018 Farm Bill began at least seven years ago, and we wonder what other plans or deals may already be informally in process. Vigilance is critical, especially in light of potential changes in NEPA that could further limit our public voice regarding future efforts to sell off National Forest lands.
We are also concerned that some of the 30 designated tracts may not be so “disconnected,” and some may still have significant ecological value. Although the FS will do their own in-house environmental review for each sale, ForestWatch plans to review all tracts in the field and submit information to the FS prior to decisions. By surveying the tracts, we will be able to form our own assessment about value, potential watershed issues, environmental conditions, wildlife corridors, and rare species — with a science-based perspective. We look forward to working with allied organizations and engaging ForestWatch volunteers in this endeavor. The FS invites members of the public to visit their Ranger District Offices and review their maps with details on the designated land tracts.
See our Interactive Map to see Land parcels for sale