Public needs to know national forest is for community

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 27, 2005

On Jan. 7, 2005, The Ironton Tribune asked, "Does the Wayne National Forest even want more land?" As the District Ranger on the Ironton Ranger District of the Wayne National Forest, I feel the more appropriate question should be, "Does Lawrence County want and need the benefits of having more public lands?"

The answer to that question is a resounding, "Yes!"

To clarify a prominent point, the Forest Service does not own any of this land. The land managed by the Forest Service belongs to the American public; Lawrence County can reap the benefits of this land management and public land ownership, but only if it has a contiguous land base to manage.

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According to the Ohio Division of Wildlife (2001) Ohio ranks 47th per capita among the 50 states in the amount of public land available for outdoor recreation.

Consolidating public land ownership is critical for developing quality dispersed recreation opportunities that will ultimately benefit Lawrence County: off-highway vehicle areas, horse, bike, and hiking trails, camping and recreation areas, and hunting. This will attract more visitors to these public lands, for longer stays, which in turn means increased revenues for local businesses.

The Forest Service does not need these public lands; the public needs these public lands.

That is the whole point of federally-managed public lands: to manage and conserve these lands so they will be available to the public for the future.

Land purchases by the Wayne NF have seldom if ever hindered economic development opportunities.

Prospective sellers who come to the Forest Service know that they will be offered a fair market price for their property, and they also know that the future of their former lands will be a benefit for the community, the county and for their children's children in years to come.

We are not a last resort for prospective sellers, nor do we undercut other potential buyers for the sake of acquiring property to add to the public lands we manage.

If in the future a parcel of Wayne NF land is deemed necessary or critical for economic development in the county and suitable privately owned land is not available for purchase, the Forest Service would be very willing to consider an exchange of lands to facilitate a mutually satisfactory outcome.

An exchange of land occurred this past year in New Straitsville, a community near Athens within the Wayne NF proclamation boundary.

Another exchange occurred a few years ago in Lawrence County to enable a golf course to expand.

An exchange also took place with the Rock Hill School District to give them the room they needed for expansion.

It is our policy to fill in the gaps in ownership by concentrating future purchases adjacent to areas already under Forest Service management and to minimize our acquisition in other areas.

Forest Supervisor Mary Reddan has stated her willingness to develop and sign an agreement with the county that would give assurances to the county that this will be our direction for future purchases.

I want to assure the people of Lawrence County that the Forest Service is sensitive to their concerns about economic development when we consider purchasing a property.

We would not buy a tract if we knew its purchase was being considered by a private party for something that would be of economic benefit to the county or would increase the tax base.

When the Forest Service purchases land that is taxed by the county as agricultural, the direct return to the county often increases. For example when various sources of income to the county including payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILT), 25 percent funds, minerals, Co-operative Law Enforcement payments, Federal Highways dollars, various roads projects and miscellaneous sources are totaled and divided out on a per acre basis for fiscal year 2002, the total returned to the county was $2.276 per acre of Forest Service ownership.

This is above the $1.72 per acre rate often quoted for agricultural based taxes.

This does not take into account the thousands of dollars spent by the Wayne NF in Lawrence County each year: fuel, maintenance and repair for a fleet of 18 vehicles; the many various supplies for daily operations that are purchased locally; and the approximate $920,000 forest-wide annual payroll, of which $720,000 is paid to employees who live in Lawrence County.

Neither does it take into account various contracts awarded to local bidders. All of these are still only a partial list of ways the Wayne NF brings benefits to the economy of Lawrence County.

The facts are that the Forest Service is neither limiting the area for development, nor eroding the tax base but is a positive influence on the local economy.

As a resident of Lawrence County, I am personally concerned about local economic development and I want to see the county and all its communities prosper.

I pledge to continue working to help develop ways to increase Wayne NF contributions to the local economy.

It is my desire, and the policy of the Forest Service, to be a wise steward of your public lands and to manage the Ironton district for the benefit of local communities, and for all Americans, for the environmental needs and recreational opportunities that these public lands provide.

These lands belong to everyone and are truly an asset to our community. I am going to work as hard as I can to make everyone proud of "their" Wayne National Forest.

Gloria Chrismer is the Ironton District Ranger for the Wayne National Forest.