The Transylvania Times -

By Park Baker
Staff Writer 

Congressional Move On Public Lands Concerns Some – Brevard NC

 

January 16, 2017



On its first day in session, the 115th Congress passed a provision that makes it easier to sell off or turn over control of federal public lands to states.

U.S. Rep Mark Meadows, who represents the 11th District in Western North Carolina, including Transylvania County, voted for the provision. His office has not responded to numerous requests for comment.

House Republicans essentially changed how Congress calculates the cost of land transference to states and other entities, which some people feel will make it easier to give control to states and private parties.

According to Gray Jernigan, executive director of MountainTrue, a local environmental nonprofit that does work in Transylvania County, there a few problems with the provision. First, he said, it prohibits the consideration of fair market value of the land and lays the foundation for a massive give away of public land to states.

“We think the goal of that would be to skirt federal protections now in place,” he said. “(A) major problem is that states don’t have the resources to manage these huge massive tracts of land. All the things the fed does on a routine basis are just far beyond the scope of what a state can afford, and incentivizing sales to private parties removes the benefit to the public entirely.

“The second major problem sets up a huge transfer of wealth without any benefits to the American taxpayer. Through our income taxes and otherwise, we have invested in these properties for years and years.

“To sell them without any benefit or return on that, with no guarantee on the funds returning to the treasury to support other public benefits and add leasing that public resource in the process, is just a huge hit to the taxpayers.”

Jernigan said the only real goals he sees out of this are to sidestep federal protections for years to allow exploitation of the land.

“It all kind of worries me,” he said. “Timber and clear cutting were a huge issue and was kind of the catalyst to start our organization in the 1980s. Around Western North Carolina, timber is probably the biggest issue, but I wouldn’t limit it to that. Oil and gas exploration and mining are all activities that take a really extensive toll of the land at the expense of all the stakeholders.”

Lumber production in the southern Appalachians is certainly not what it used to be.

Proponents of the industry claim that environmental regulation harms the extraction process resulting in job loss, while environmental proponents nationwide claim that the incoming administration could use U.S. assets to pay off the national debt and balance state budgets.

China-based Tides and Times Inc., owns the majority of large-scale sawmills in the region, including a new one scheduled to open last week in Parrotsville, Tenn., according to a company employee.

The Woodlawn Sawmill and Dry Kiln in Marion; the Lenoir Sawmill; the Robbinsville Sawmill and Dry Kilns; the Morganton Dry Kiln; Cherry Mountain Sawmill in Bostic, Rutherford County; and the Tryon Sawmill are all owned by Tides and Times Inc.

Discussing public lands on the first day in Congress has more than one executive director worried.

Adam Cramer, the director of the Outdoor Alliance, a Washington, D.C.,-based environmental nonprofit with several employees in Western North Carolina, said this is a notable development and people need to pay attention to it.

“They’re starting to talk about public lands right out of the gate,” he said. “When the government wants to sell off public lands it has to prove that it is ‘revenue neutral,’ which means it can’t cost them money, or, if it does, they have to come up with an offset. If there is public land that generates a stream of revenue, then they have to take that loss of revenue into account. So, if they transfer it and there is a lease that creates revenue stream for the treasury, and then is transferred to the state, that revenue stream goes away. They have to take that into account. They can say, ‘We’re going to lose money, and we’re going to do this. We don’t have to fund an offset.’

“The curious thing is that it doesn’t take into account fair market value, so in a wilderness area, for example, there is no extractive activity. But it has tremendous value….It only looks at the revenue generated by the land. What this does is say, ‘OK, it doesn’t count, so it doesn’t have to be offset.’ If it doesn’t have to find an offset, it makes a piece of legislation easier to pass. It’s just an extra hoop that people have to jump through.

“Take Oskar Blues, for example. They get their water from the forest, as I understand it. That’s one of the main reasons they located there — healthy, intact public lands. Ask the folks at Oskar Blues if these public lands are worth zero.

“Their business is based on getting that clean water and all the folks that decided to base their business there. That’s the disconnect. It generates so much economic activity. So, to then say it’s worth nothing, it strikes me as odd, and it doesn’t add up.”

Regional U.S. Forest Service employees declined to comment, but Babete Anderson, a national press officer with the Forest Service, said that “it would be inappropriate to speculate on actions initiated by the incoming administration and that the Forest Service would continue to support the direction of the Department of Agriculture.”

Jill Gottesman, with the Wilderness Society’s Sylva office, said her organization is certainly not happy about the development and that Congress had removed a bureaucratic process in the Congressional Budget Office.

“I think a big fear is that we’ll see more extractive activities like logging or fracking happening under state ownership without the kind of review process for our federal lands, so our public lands — the values — won’t be taken into account,” she said. “If we’re looking at the transfer of public lands to private, one of the real affects is loss of access for hunting, fishing, Hiking, all manner of recreation.

“Traditionally, keeping public lands in public hands is the best way to ensure access.”

Local representation has little to say about the national push for state control of public lands. Of the five Transylvania County commissioners, only Page Lemel responded to request for comment, but she said that the language in the provision was “above her pay grade” and that she did not fully understand the implications.

N.C. Rep. Cody Henson and N.C. Sen. Chuck Edwards, both of whom represent Transylvania County, were provided with the following questions:

What kinds of federal land would you consider purchasing? Do you think it is a good idea to turn our federal public lands over to state control? What environmental or public access concerns do you have regarding this development? Congressman Meadows voted for this provision. Do you think the state of North Carolina has the ability to manage federal lands?

Henson provided the following email response: “To answer your questions, I believe that any land purchase by the state would need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. Many factors will have to be looked at —factors like economic benefit to the area, how the state pays for purchase and upkeep of the land, and the plan for the land. There is no cookie cutter, one size fits all answer.”

Edwards did not reply to the questions.

However, Lee McMinn, chair of the Transylvania Natural Resources Council, said that conveying public lands is a way for Republicans to return land to local control.

“Thereby providing more opportunities for developers, increasing tax bases, easing restrictions on extraction technologies (mining, oil, gas, etc.) and, for people like Cliven Bundy, grazing rights,” said McMinn. “It is part and parcel of, in my opinion, that a substantial wing of the Republican Party has no respect for publicly owned property. National parks, forests, monuments, battlefields and so on were created to protect our best natural sites and cultural heritage areas from speculative development, and, like Benton MacKaye (architect of the Appalachian Trail) espoused 100 years ago, to allow the public living in cities and built-up areas of the country to access pristine wilderness and to have an outdoor experience not cluttered by development.

“The Forest Service, of course, was created to provide income for the federal government (a mission that has greatly changed over the years).”

 
 

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