The North Georgia Forty

By Gregg Jones

Vol. 5, No. 6, 1983, p. 13

Their rallying cry is "Keep public lands in public hands," and Dr. Phillip Greear hopes it will help save national forest land from the auction block.

An ecologist at North Georgia's Shorter College, Greear takes credit for coining the phrase that is appearing on bumpers around the United States in protet of the federal government's talk of selling national forest lands.

In all, 856,000 acres of national forest are being considered for sale in the fourteen state Southeast region--a little less than ten percent of the region's twelve million forest land acres--sprawling from Virginia's Potomac River to the Brazos River of Texas. Georgia lands for possible sale include 95,000 acres in the Chattahoochie National Forest and 34,000 acres in the Oconee National Forest.

Greear has been joined by farmers, teachers, college students, artists, labor leaders and even state senator Ed Hines, some forty north Georgians in all, fighting the possible sale of parts of the Chattahoochie and Oconee national forests in the state.

Selling government land has been proposed by the Reagan Administration as a means of reducing the national debt. Under the Administration's directive, Secretary of Agriculture John Block is drafting legislation that would allow the sale of forest lands, according to Roy Gandy, director of lands and minerals for the U.S. Forest Service Southeast Region. (National forest lands fall under the control of the Department of Agriculture.)

"We decided that since the proposal has to go before Congress, we had to speak out and let congressmen and senators know that we object to the plan," says Greear, a pipe-smoking environmental activist. He has successfully fought potentially environmentally damaging federal proposals before in the North Georgia mountains, and he views this as yet another threat on forest land around the country.

Greear grew up in the mountainous North Georgia forests. He saw the government acquire depleted forest land from private lumber interests and nurture it to a more pristine state as the Chattahoochie National Forest.

It wasn't long after he came into office that President Reagan sowed the seeds for the forest land fight. In 1981 he created the Property Review Board, which was instructed to study national forest, park and wildlife lands for possible sale. In turn, regional federal officials began reviewing public lands. Last spring, the Southeast Region of the U.S. Forest Service released its list of lands that might be sold.

Greear and other opponents of the proposed sale banded together and began raising funds. They rallied five hundred sympathizers in May and began sending out newsletters to the media and the public. As a recent move to underscore the importance and value of the Chattahoochie National Forest, group members began work on a forty-seven mile trail that will provide recreation benefits to thousands.

The program to sell off "surplus federal property" already has picked up steam this year in Georgia and other Southeastern states, reports Barney Maltby, of the General Services Administration's regional office in Atlanta. In 1982 only two small pieces of federal land were sold in the state, fetching eight thousand dollars. As of September, 258 acres of federal land in Georgia have been sold for nearly one million dollars in 1983. Maltby said he expects the sales in the Southeast to top twenty million dollars by the end of this month.

The proposal has resulted in environmentalists leveling yet another broadside at the Reagan administration and its environmental policies. Public reaction was harsh enough to prompt former Interior Secretary James G. Watt to decide against selling his department's refuge and national park lands.

The issue of selling forest lands, however, remains very much alive before the Agriculture Department. The sale question will likely be decided by Congress, and Gandy says "just about anything" could happen.

Greear and the North Georgians, meanwhile, are whipping up support and lobbying state and federal legislators. They vow to continue the fight "until we get the government to drop the plan," says Greear. "Our main goal is to keep the issue alive and keep pressure on Congress, and hopefully prevent legislation from ever being introduced.

Gregg Jones is a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.