Proposed sale of forest lands draws public scrutiny at meeting

  • Megan Broome/The Clayton Tribune. Marie Dunkle, board president for Georgia ForestWatch, left, and Ryan Foote, district ranger for the Chattooga River Ranger District of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Lakemont, hold up a map of National Forest System Land in Georgia potentially for sale. Foote points to the location of Rabun County, where approximately 1,229 acres of the roughly 3,841 acres is located.
    Megan Broome/The Clayton Tribune. Marie Dunkle, board president for Georgia ForestWatch, left, and Ryan Foote, district ranger for the Chattooga River Ranger District of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Lakemont, hold up a map of National Forest System Land in Georgia potentially for sale. Foote points to the location of Rabun County, where approximately 1,229 acres of the roughly 3,841 acres is located.
  • Marie Dunkle, board president of Ga. ForestWatch, makes a point at last week's meeting.
    Marie Dunkle, board president of Ga. ForestWatch, makes a point at last week's meeting.
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CLAYTON— The potential sale of roughly 3,841 acres—30 tracts—of National Forest System land in the state of Georgia has been a buzz of controversy with questions and concerns from community members about the impact it will have on the local environment.

Approximately 1,229 acres (seven tracts) of that land is located in Rabun County.

This issue was given a platform for community discussion at a meeting of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL) Wednesday, October 23.

“I know there are a lot of people with questions, concerns, and issues,” said Cherie Faircloth, founding member of the Rabun Gap Chapter of BREDL, about why she chose this topic for the meeting.

Ryan Foote, district ranger for the Chattooga River Ranger District of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Lakemont, was a guest speaker to provide local residents clarity on new legislation regarding the selling and exchanging of National Forest Lands.  

Marie Dunkle, board president of Georgia ForestWatch, and Nicole Hayler, executive director of Chattooga Conservancy were also guest speakers.

“I did want to take advantage of the offer to come speak to folks on this piece of legislation,” Foote said.

He said that he understands that this is a sensitive and controversial topic.  

“I understand the passion here and this one is a little bit different,” Foote said about the legislation.

Foote said that he has worked on land exchanges in the past, but that the process that this legislation went through by being passed in Congress, signed by the president, included in the “Farm Bill” and then passed down to the Forest Service to implement was a surprise.

“Even us internally inside the agency were like what, wait a minute,” Foote said.

Foote explained the “Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest Land Adjustment” Act, which is a section of the “Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018” colloquially known as the “Farm Bill.”

The bill was enacted into law on December 20, 2018.

Foote said that the law allows the United States Forest Service (USFS) to identify areas in National Forest Lands where isolated tracts might exist.

These are areas that do not give good administrative or public access, such as places for recreation use, Foote said.

“So that is the piece of legislation that is giving us the authority to sell these lands, give opportunities for changing these lands or not sell anything,” Foote said. “That’s still on the table,” he said about not moving forward with the sale at all.

Foote said that it is still early in the process to determine whether any tracts of land in Rabun County will be sold at all.  

He said that the USFS assess the sensitivity of these tracts and asks, “are those still a good investment for the agency under these times.”

One point of contention attendees voiced about the sale is that the Rabun County Board of Commissioners showed support and agreed to sell land in Rabun County when initial discussions began in 2011.

“This is definitely a county commission issue,” Hayler said about the county giving the green light for the sale of this public land.

Foote said that only one county declined being part of the sale of forest land.

With the new legislation, Foote said the USFS wants to reengage with the counties to determine if they are still on board with the selling of land.

 “We are reaching back out to the counties to discuss with them a second time if they are ready to go forward with it and then developing our process for how we move forward with this,” Foote said.

But Foote said that the selling or exchanging of land still won’t occur until years from now.

He said that there are mandatory and necessary environmental studies that have to be completed first.  

These include complete landline surveys of these tracts as well as archeological surveys to determine if there are any historical resources present.

Foote said it is important to make sure that there are no critical botanical habitats within these tracts of land.

Buzz Williams, program associate for Chattooga Conservancy, spoke briefly and said that he has visited every tract of land in Rabun County and in fact found unique environment habitats that need to be preserved.

Hayler asked Foote if there is a way to place Conservation Easements on any of these lands, which is a legal agreement that permanently limits the use of the land to protect its conservation values.

Foote said that the USFS cannot acquire land that has a Conservation Easement in place.

Foote said that he has the public’s best interest at heart when doing his job.

“I didn’t get into this agency to sell off public land,” Foote said. He said they sell the land with a mindset of “what could be picked up for the public [to use].”

“That’s what I’m looking at,” Foote said.

He did clarify that if land is sold in Rabun County the USFS does not necessarily have to reinvest that money in Rabun County. They have 12 months to turn around and reinvest the money that is made from the sale.

Foote encouraged anyone with specific questions or concerns to reach out to him.

Meeting attendee Pete Cleaveland asked if there is a time frame for the selling and exchanging of land.

We don’t even know that this sale will happen within the next five years, Foote said.

Hayler said that although some of the tracts of land might be too small to be useful as the USFS claims, she still believes the community should be able to look for themselves.

 “We need to keep vigilance,” Hayler said.

A question was raised about whether a cost analysis is being done for these required environmental surveys.

Foote said that is not something the organization would do, but that they do track the total cost to taxpayers over time.

He said that there is an upfront cost to completing these environmental requirements.

Hayler reminded the audience that the sale “is not a done deal” and encouraged community members to write to their local agencies and county commissioners with questions and concerns they have and reasons for support or opposition of the land sale.

“Get it in writing if you have real concerns,” Foote said. He said written correspondence is a lot more effective than a phone call.

Hayler said that if there is a lot of opposition at the local level then it necessarily won’t happen.

 “This is a trial balloon,” Hayler said about the land sale. “So, it’s up to Rabun County to set an expectation on how to handle this.”

Williams said that he believes the selling of the land is driven by political motivations.

“We need to zero in on what’s going on here,” Williams said. “It’s a sweetheart deal with the county,” he added.

Stephen Arbitter, county commissioner, gave a statement on behalf of the county about statements made during the discussion, in an interview after the meeting,

“It’s great that there’s so much community interest in preserving our mountains,” Arbitter said. He said that he focuses on tourism as a commissioner and that public lands and mountains tops are a big draw for the industry.

Arbitter said that every member of the community has his own reason for speaking out about the National Forest Lands that surround Rabun County, whether it be for real estate, construction, business or viewing pleasure.

Now is the time to start having these conversations, Arbitter said.