Kentucky

‘It’s not their land.’ Rand Paul meeting airs gripes over federal land ownership.

Cumberland Falls: Visit our ‘Niagara of the South’

Cumberland Falls is located in the Daniel Boone National Forest. Known as the "Niagara of the South," the waterfall forms a 125-ft-wide curtain that plunges 7 stories into a gorge. Visit parks.ky.gov for more information about Kentucky State Parks.
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Cumberland Falls is located in the Daniel Boone National Forest. Known as the "Niagara of the South," the waterfall forms a 125-ft-wide curtain that plunges 7 stories into a gorge. Visit parks.ky.gov for more information about Kentucky State Parks.

The federal government may end up getting rid of some land in Southern Kentucky following complaints by residents to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.

Paul put forth a measure in February aimed at getting the government to sell some land in the Daniel Boone National Forest in McCreary County for potential commercial development. The Senate did not approve the measure, but Paul hasn’t given up on the idea.

The Republican from Bowling Green held a meeting in McCreary County Thursday to talk about the costs of federal land ownership.

The purpose was to look into “the impact on taxpayers and how we can ensure affected local communities have the maximum opportunity to create jobs and grow their economies,” as well as “how to guarantee Kentuckians and visitors have greater access to enjoy the Commonwealth’s natural beauty,” Paul’s office said in a news release.

The issue resonates in a county where the federal government owns 81 percent of the land. That’s the highest percentage of any county in Kentucky, local officials believe.

Most of that is in the Daniel Boone National Forest, overseen by the U.S. Forest Service. The forest takes in 142,771 acres in the county. The rest is in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation area, administered by the National Park Service. The area also includes land in Tennessee.

The federal land helps protect valuable environmental resources and boost tourism.

For instance, a study showed that 761,200 visitors to the recreation area in 2017 spent $22.7 million in communities near the park, which supported 299 jobs, according to the National Park Service.

“These parks are economic drivers,” said Christopher Derman, chief of interpretation and education for the Big South Fork.

However, it also erodes the tax base and limits the use of the land.

The federal government does not pay property taxes on the land as a private owner would, but rather makes a payment in lieu of taxes, said Judge-Executive Jimmie W. Greene II.

“It’s pennies on the dollar that they’re paying,” Greene said, which limits the county’s ability to provide services.

The amount of federal money coming to the school system annually based on federal land ownership has dropped from about $400,000 six years ago to $12,550 in the most recent fiscal year, which has played a role in increased class sizes and other changes, said Michelle King, finance officer for the system

“It was a dramatic cut,” she said.

People at Thursday’s meeting with Paul raised a number of sore points over federal land ownership, including agencies blocking roads, limiting access to the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River for fishing and other activities, and restricting commercial logging in the national forest.

Logging is a significant industry in the county.

The deputy judge-executive, Nathan Nevels, said three local families can only access their property by foot because federal agencies closed a road, and that three churches surrounded by the recreation area have to pay a fee for waterlines that pass through federal land.

Residents said the park service has not done a good job maintaining some facilities, and complained that some federal officials have not worked well with the county.

Many residents have a feeling local people are not welcome in the area administered by the National Park Service.

“Oppression is what we started to learn” after the federal government took control of the land in the recreation area and imposed new rules, said Randy Kidd, head of the McCreary County Industrial Development Authority.

Paul said when his office called the Forest Service to check on getting information, the response was that the office would have to file a freedom of information lawsuit.

“That was the response we got, and that made me very mad,” Paul said.

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Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.

It’s a sore spot with local officials and business people that the initial plan for the recreation area included a lodge in Kentucky that didn’t come to pass.

Local officials would like additional access to the recreation area in hopes of having a private concessionaire build a lodge.

“We would just like to be offered a fair share,” Greene said.

Federal officials at the meeting said agencies close roads or limit access to areas for a variety of reasons, including to protect the environment.

Daniel Boone National Forest Ranger Tim Reed said in one case, federal agencies closed a road that went through private land because people with all-terrain and four-wheel drive vehicles had used it to get to an area and caused damage.

“It looked like a moonscape,” said Reed, whom local officials praised for working well with them.

Federal official said there is a process to apply to open roads, but Nevels said no one had told local officials about it.

Paul said it seems “dictatorial” for a federal agency to close a road that local people want open.

He said he had heard concerns about federal control of land in other counties as well.

The five largest federal land-owning agencies owned a total of just over a million acres in Kentucky in 2015, or 4.3 percent of the land in the state, the Congressional Research Service said in 2017.

The Forest Service is the biggest federal landowner in the state, followed by the Department of Defense (Fort Knox and Fort Campbell) and the National Park Service, the report said.

Some conservation groups raised concerns when Paul first proposed freeing up some land from the Daniel Boone National Forest for development, including that it didn’t provide a way for people opposed to the idea to comment.

The proposal did not specify how much land would be sold, which raised a concern about losing big chunks of forest land.

However, Paul said that was never his intent. Rather, the goal was to free up only a small amount of land, perhaps a few hundred feet back from U.S. 27 and KY 90 in areas with the potential for commercial development.

He noted the federal government owns 640 million acres of land nationwide.

“Could you not deal with 20 acres less on Highway 27?” he asked federal officials. “I think it would be good for the economy and wouldn’t hurt the forest at all,” Paul said after the meeting.

Federal officials pledged to work with local officials on their concerns.

For instance, Ken Arney, director of the U.S. Forest Service in the South, said there might be potential to open some land for development through a special-use provision. That would have to follow an established process, however, including a review and opportunity for people to comment, even those from outside the county.

“The land is owned by all the American people,” Arney said.

A Big South Fork employee who spoke at the meeting, Olivia Immitt, said she favors more jobs in the county, but cautioned there would need to be careful review of turning over federal land because a small development could affect a larger area.

Paul said the hearing had worked to facilitate communication between federal and local officials.

He said that while it didn’t seem encouraging that the two sides will be able to work out an agreement under current rules that would satisfy local interests, he would wait several months to see if that’s possible.

If not, other steps could include asking the Secretary of the Interior to get involved or changes in the law, Paul said.

“It’s not their land,” he said of the federal agencies. “It’s our land.”

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