Land deal still topic of debate

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 29, 2004

A month after county leaders put the brakes on a plan to grow Wayne National Forest's size by nearly 2,500 acres, both sides seem splintered on the issue.

Richard Shank, state director of The Nature Conservancy, was in Ironton Wednesday seeking support for his organization's plan.

"I think there has been a lot of misinformation floating around," Shank told members of the Ironton Rotary Club, referring to The Nature Conservancy's plan to sell 2,500 acres of land in northern Lawrence County to the U.S. Forestry Service.

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The Nature Conservancy has plans to purchase an additional 1,700 acres in Lawrence and Gallia counties later this year with the intention of ultimately selling it to the USFS, too.

"This is basically a simple deal here in Lawrence County," Shank said.

The leader of the county's economic development agency says the plan is anything but "simple."

"Today, (Wayne National Forest) own 25 percent of Lawrence County, but they, by their own admission, contribute about $200,000 back," Bill Dingus said, referring to Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) paid by the federal government.

Shank said simply comparing potential tax revenue against PILT payments only shows part of the picture. He said additional revenues are paid through in-kind federal services and indirect taxes.

Dingus, executive director of the Lawrence Economic Development Corporation and the county's chamber, is vocal in his concern over the plan to greatly expand the national forest.

Both the chamber and county commissioners are opposed to expanding the forest until the existing land in the national forest can be further developed. The Governor's Office of Appalachia has agreed to fund a study of how to do that.

"I'm not sure they (members of the Forestry Service) are properly funded to maintain the 70,000 acres they already have," Dingus said. "There are 100 dump sites in the national forest. If they can't clean up those 100 dumps, then I'm not sure they need more land."

Shank said putting the land in the hands of the forestry service will help make the forest more contiguous and will help foster economic development through increased recreational opportunities.

"People (in other areas) know about Wayne National Forest," Shank said. "Yet, I don't think there always has been an opportunity for them to come down and spend all that they can."

Shank said the best way to use the land is by selling it to the U.S. Forestry Service since they can better manage it.

Dingus said if the purchase goes through, he would like to see the forestry service agree to spend an equal amount on improving existing lands, including work to help bring lodging facilities to the area.

Shank, however, said such work should be left to the private sector.

"First of all, the Forestry Service doesn't build lodges and cabins," he said. "(And) we can't sell (the land) or give it up for any reason but conservation."

In addition, Dingus said the land includes a dormant 80-acre strip mine that could be mined before reclamation of the surrounding land. The Nature Conservancy is opposed to using the land or selling it for any reason other than preservation.

Dingus said he does not mind the national forest expanding, but thinks it needs to be "planned growth" and the plans should include county residents.

"We don't want to automatically assume that the only use of that land is recreation," Dingus said. "We see the future of Lawrence County, and the state of this nation, moving toward the development of rural areas."

Shank said the Nature Conservancy is a private, non-profit organization that tries to avoid conflict.

"You won't see us out in front of the courthouse with picket signs. We don't take confrontational views," he said. "Clearly ,we don't want to come in here and try to bully our way into this."

Since the chance of gaining federal appropriation this year is highly unlikely, The Nature Conservancy is working on getting its message out and trying to get funding next year. If funding does not ultimately come through, Shank said The Nature Conservancy is content to hold the property and is working with the state to allow public hunting on the land.

"If they will cooperate, with the assistance of the Governor's Office of Appalachia, I see a group of 20 people Š coming up with three or four recommendations," Dingus said. "This is one issue in a powerful, powerful bigger issue, a broader discussion on rural Lawrence County. And we're concerned with what's best for the county."