Why does Rand Paul want to sell part of the Daniel Boone National Forest?

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.

A controversial proposal by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul that could have led to the sale of federal forest land in Southern Kentucky was not included in a bill approved by the Senate Tuesday.

Opponents of the measure had raised concerns that it would force the sale of an undetermined amount of land from the Daniel Boone National Forest in McCreary County.

The “awful sell-off of our Daniel Boone National Forest needs to be vigorously opposed,” Kentucky Heartwood said in a call on its site to oppose the measure.

Paul also submitted a separate amendment directing the U.S. Forest Service to allow access through the Daniel Boone National Forest to tributaries of Lake Cumberland in Pulaski, Rockcastle, Laurel, Wayne and McCreary counties “for the purpose of installing docks, boat slips and marinas.”

That proposal also was not included in the final bill, according to Jim Scheff, director of Kentucky Heartwood.

Paul said both measures were aimed at promoting economic development, but had also raised an issue of federal control of land in a news release.

“The federal government has no business standing in the way of Kentuckians accessing their own natural resources, and I’ve been proud to lead the charge on their behalf,” Paul, a Republican from Bowling Green, said in the release. “These amendments would provide a much-needed opportunity to increase tourism and support new economic growth in the counties surrounding Daniel Boone National Forest and the Lake Cumberland area.”

The amendment on selling land in McCreary County said the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, who oversees the Forest Service, “shall” conduct one or more sales of forest land along U.S. 27 between Burnside, in southern Pulaski County, and the Tennessee state line.

That is a distance of about 30 miles, but the federal forest does not lie adjacent to the highway the entire distance.

The amendment specified the land could not be sold at leas than fair market value.

However, it did not specify the amount of acreage that could be sold or how far back from the road the lots could extend, raising concerns for some that big chunks of the forest could be sold off.

Paul’s office said the intent of the proposal was to make only a small amount of land adjacent to the highway available.

And despite the use of the word “shall” in the measure, the intent was to authorize the secretary of agriculture to sell land, not mandate that, Paul’s office said.

Jim Scheff, director of Kentucky Heartwood, stood by as wife Tina Marie Johnson, coordinator for the organization, took a photo of a rattlesnake plantain beside a trail in the Daniel Boone National Forest in McCreary County in 2014.

Federal land ownership has been a sensitive issue in McCreary County.

The county is one of the nation’s poorest, with per capita income of $11,492 in the latest measure by the U.S. Census Bureau, compared to the national figure of $31,177.

Some residents argue that federal land ownership plays a role in the county’s economic distress.

About 70 percent of the county is part of either the Daniel Boone National Forest or the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, said Judge-Executive Jimmie W. Greene II.

Greene said federal lands bring in tourists and so contribute to the local economy, but also make areas off-limits to some development and erode the county’s tax base.

“It’s been a problem for us as far as economic development,” Greene said.

The federal government pays the county only a small amount in lieu of property taxes, Greene said, which makes it harder to fund local services.

The hope is that selling some forest land would boost private development and put more land on the tax roll, Greene said.

Greene said local officials and residents have raised issues about federal land ownership in the county for years.

Officials pressed the case again in January when a representative of Paul’s attended a fiscal court meeting, Greene said.

Scheff, the director at Kentucky Heartwood, which seeks to protect and restore the state’s forests, said that despite the significant amount of publicly-owned land in southern Pulaski County and McCreary County, there is sufficient private land to accommodate development.

Scheff said less than a third of U.S. 27 from Burnside to the Tennessee line passes through or is adjacent to the national forest.

He said lack of detail in Paul’s proposal about the potential size of the land sale in McCreary County was a concern. Another was that both measures lacked a way for the public to have input on anticipated land sales and potential construction of infrastructure through the forest to reach tributaries of the lake, Scheff said.

The Forest Service already has a process covering access to those areas, which includes necessary environmental review, Scheff said.

“Neither of these make sense,” Scheff said of Paul’s proposals.

Advocates plan to keep watch in case Paul brings up the proposals on other bills, Scheff said.

“These sorts of things don’t tend to die,” he said.

Bill Estep covers Southern and Eastern Kentucky.