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Will Your Favorite Forest be Sold?

To the lengthy list of threats menacing our public lands, we can now add another: land grabs disguised as bills to protect states’ rights. House Republicans recently introduced a bill—the State National Forest Management Act, H.R. 3650—that would allow any state to seize up to two million acres of national forests within its borders and sell them off to the highest bidder. In case there’s any doubt who that might be, Don Young, the Alaska representative who wrote the bill, explicitly stated during a February congressional hearing that the two million acres suddenly gifted to Alaska “would be managed primarily for timber production.”

Young says his bill is needed to stop incompetent, tree-hugging feds from somehow ruining states’ economies by preserving nature for those who might wish to pay for the privilege of seeing it. “We have people from Eastern states coming to [Alaska] and saying ‘Look, isn’t it pretty’ as they go back to their homes and drive their cars,” he said during the hearing, apparently under the impression that all of these people somehow visit his state without spending a dime.

Moreover, according to Young, the “worst-managed public lands” in the country are owned by the federal government, which doesn’t understand the economic impacts on local communities when it takes away “their” timber via logging restrictions.

Young’s spokesman Matt Shuckerow doubled down on that theme. H.R. 3650 “represents a longstanding effort to reform the federal government’s broken system of forestry management, including failures to address wildlife and the spread of insects and disease, in a manner that empowers local communities, builds resilient forests and streamlines burdensome management practices,” he said.

He went on to lament the fact that federal forestry managers in the Tongass National Forest have sold “only” about 12 percent of the 267 million board feet annual allowable cut. According to Shuckerow, Young’s bill would allow Alaska and other states to “do better.”

Is dismantling national forests and prioritizing logging over everything else really the best way to manage public lands for the country as a whole, or even for individual states?

Young’s bill “takes a sledgehammer approach to the issue of forest management,” said Kathy DeCoster, vice president and director of federal affairs for the Trust for Public Land. “America’s national forests support a vibrant outdoor recreation economy and are valued by Americans from coast to coast. These lands should be held for public use by all Americans.”

Piles of data show that outdoor recreation—which isn’t exactly encouraged by clear-cut wastelands—produces vast amounts of cash and jobs for local economies. The Outdoor Industry Association reports that on a national level, outdoor recreation generates $646 billion in consumer spending, $39.9 billion in federal tax revenue, 6.1 million direct jobs, and $39.7 billion in state and local tax revenue every year.

And these benefits aren’t confined to the West. North Carolina, for example, annually enjoys $19.2 billion in consumer spending, $5.6 billion in wages and salaries, 192,000 direct jobs, and $1.3 billion in state and local tax revenue when people come to play in the great outdoors.

“Having outdoor recreational opportunities is a big part of supporting recreation-oriented businesses, and national forests are a big part of that,” said Sarah Francisco of the Southern Environmental Law Center. She sees the proposed State National Forest Management Act as a giant potential giveaway to logging companies. “It’s important for people to understand all of the benefits, including economic benefits, from our national forests.” Beyond recreation, national forests provide additional services with economic as well as environmental value, including clean drinking water and integrated fire and pest management.

Jay Leutze, president of the Board of Trustees for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy in Asheville, North Carolina, said that all benefits of national forests would be threatened by transferring them to cash-strapped states. For example, he pointed out that North Carolina recently eliminated its natural heritage trust fund, which was charged with protecting fragile ecological sites. Its functions were merged with the state’s clean water trust fund and staff was laid off, making it harder to identify lands that need protection.

“State agencies are under stress, so it seems strange to add to their administrative burdens when they’re having a tough time meeting their current goals,” he said. “I think when times are hard, states will have every temptation to look to revenue-generating schemes.” That, of course, would include logging.

DeCoster agrees that there are considerable risks in Young’s approach. “Removing up to two million acres in each state and withdrawing those lands from public use in favor of timber harvesting could affect the health of rivers and streams that support fish and wildlife, could destroy habitat connectivity, and could impair natural, scenic and recreational resources,” she said.

The good news is that the chances of H.R. 3650 becoming law appear to be slim, at least for now. There’s no companion bill in the Senate, perhaps because such a measure would have a much tougher time there. It’s possible that the bill could find its way into a larger public lands spending package, but Francisco said even that is unlikely, especially in the East. “It’s my understanding that this drive to transfer federal public lands out of federal ownership is mostly limited to the West,” she said. “In the East, people and local communities here recognize many of the other important values these national forests have, and the trend toward extraction isn’t as pronounced.”

Unfortunately, similar legislative threats are lurking. A new Senate bill (S. 2807, sponsored by Sen. Bill Cassidy), for example, would turn marine management in coastal national parks over to the states, allowing state governors to eliminate no-fishing zones that are critical for ecosystem recovery. So complacency is not an option. It seems that those who would use our public lands and waterways for short-term economic gain will continue their efforts at every opportunity.

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