GOLDEN POND — Environmentalists are suing the U.S. Forest Service over what they say is an illegal dole: The agency's longstanding practice of subsidizing corn and soybean farming on a nature preserve in Western Kentucky and Tennessee.
Two farmers have received at least $200,000 in federal subsidies since 2000 for cultivating more than 2,100 acres in the Land Between the Lakes, an area of 235 square miles.
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For abiding by some restrictions and leaving 20 percent of what's planted in the field to feed wildlife, the farmers get the land for $10 an acre in an area where farmland leases for $78 to $99 an acre, according to the U.S. Forest Service and an agricultural economist.
The Forest Service has issued dozens of permits for farming in national forests and national recreation areas. However, it appears only those in Land Between the Lakes receive federal subsidies, according to multiple Freedom of Information Act requests to the nine U.S. Forest Service districts, a search of farm subsidies from 2000 through 2006 and interviews.
Oregon-based Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics filed papers June 3 in U.S. District Court in Paducah, asking a judge to end the farmers' payments. The group's executive director, Andy Stahl, said it's the only forest system area enrolled in the farm subsidy program. He contends it shouldn't be.
Former residents also have been left feeling betrayed, saying some 5,000 families were forced off homesteads in the 1960s to create the national recreation area.
”If the government wants to pay farmers to plant the fields for the wildlife, so be it, but no one should make a dime off our sacrifice,“ said Carolyn Sue Bonds, who used to live in the area. ”I had rather see the land covered in briars and saplings rather than a single ear of corn harvested and sold from that land.“
Allison Stewart, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C., declined to comment.
Kathryn Harper, project director for Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, also declined to comment.
Kerry Underhill's family is one of five who still farm in the area. Underhill's family was among those run out of the area when the federal government impounded the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, creating two lakes that bounded the Land Between the Lakes.
Underhill, of Cadiz, and Bobby Cunningham, of Dexter, have permits to grow corn and soybeans in parts of the recreation area, while three other farmers have permits to mow fields and collect hay.
Underhill Farms has about 800 acres scattered across 30 miles in the Land Between the Lakes, with an additional 2,600 acres divided among three hay farmers and Cunningham. Underhill said the land isn't terribly profitable, but farming it keeps the fields from being overgrown.
”We survive, that's about it,“ said Underhill, who also receives subsidies for his family farm on private land. ”If you're in farming to get rich, you're in the wrong occupation.“
Underhill was initially interviewed in April 2007. He has not returned e-mail and phone messages since the lawsuit was filed.
Greg Halich, an agricultural economist with the University of Kentucky, said land in Western Kentucky leases for anywhere from $25 to $200 an acre. However, it usually goes for about $78 to $99, depending on the price of corn and how well the land produces.