Hunters Fighting Sale of 800 National Forest Acres in Georgia

Hunters Fighting Sale of 800 National Forest Acres in Georgia

Some 800 acres of public land may soon go up for sale in the Blue Ridge Mountains of north Georgia. The land in Rabun County—known locally as Boggs Mountain—is an accessible section of the roughly 867,000-acre Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. Many hunters local and afar are afraid of losing this federally-managed public land—ground owned by all Americans—and some people are doing something about it.

I recently took a walk up through the jungle undergrowth of Boggs Mountain with Chris Jenkins, a wildlife biologist, avid hunter, and chairman of the Georgia Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.

“The sale of Boggs Mountain has implications for public land transfers across the country,” Jenkins said. “It opens the door for land transfer legislation to be abused and our public lands sold out from under us. Hunters, anglers, and anyone who enjoys the outdoors should be focused on this important issue in Georgia, if they care about the public land in their backyard.”

Jenkins explained the law that makes this land eligible for sale (along with 29 other Forest Service parcels totaling around 3,000 acres across the state) is the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest Land Adjustment Act. When it was introduced as a rider to the 2018 Farm Bill and signed into law by President Trump, the act was portrayed by its Congressional co-sponsors Sen. David Perdue and Rep. Doug Collins, and the multiple conservation groups that supported them, as a win for hunters, hikers, and conservationists alike. They said the Forest Service could better serve public recreation by selling far-flung, isolated parcels and using the proceeds to acquire others that would consolidate large, current holdings.

In December of 2018 when the Land Adjustment Act was signed into law, Sen. Perdue said: “Updated forest boundaries will improve opportunities for hunting, fishing, and hiking in northeast Georgia, while making better use of taxpayer money. This was one of my top priorities for the 2018 Farm Bill, and I’m glad we were able to secure these solutions for our forests in Georgia.”

The actual language in the bill authorized the Department of Agriculture (led by David Perdue’s cousin and former Georgia governor, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue), “to sell or exchange any or all interest in 30 tracts of National Forest land in Georgia totaling approximately 3,041 acres.”

If the brand of legislative rhetoric set forth in the Land Adjustment Act has undertones of a grab of federally-managed public lands, it also seems to have roots in sound conservation: Most of the 30 tracts included in the bill are indeed isolated from the “core lands” of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, surrounded by private land and lacking in adequate public access. And if the Forest Service does sell any of these tracts, the agency is bound by the Land Adjustment Act to use the proceeds to buy up more land with greater value in terms of continuity, accessibility, and wildlife habitat elsewhere along or within the borders of the CONF.

“Not a lot of people know what we have here,” Jenkins told me as we left the tiny crossroads town of Tiger, Georgia, and embarked on the short drive to the parcel in question. “The problem that arises with the Boggs Mountain tract in particular is that it just doesn’t fit any of the stated criteria put forth in the Land Adjustment Act.”

As he told me about the land and the controversy that has swirled up around it in the wake of the Land Adjustment Act, Jenkins was careful to express the nuance of his fellow advocates’ position on the Boggs Mountain issue. In his opinion, the stated goals of the Land Adjustment Act—consolidating far-flung, isolated parcels of forest land, increasing hunting access, improving wildlife habitat, etc.—make a lot of sense.

“We support the Land Adjustment Act. We just don’t understand why the Boggs Mountain tract is on the list,” he said. “From our perspective, this is a Forest Service issue, and the Forest Service needs to take this particular tract off the list of properties that are authorized for sale under the Land Adjustment Act.”

As we continued down U.S. 441, Jenkins pointed to a swath of forested land that constitutes the back side of the Boggs Mountain tract. To our right, the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest continues on: the two sections of forest land separated only by the ribbon of county highway we were traveling. Boggs Mountain provides valuable connectivity, Jenkins tells me, to the western boundary of the Chattooga River Ranger District of the CONF. Connectivity is a common phrase in the parlance of ecologists, wildlife biologists, and conservation land managers. It refers to the interconnectedness of separate patches of habit and the degree to which resident wildlife is afforded passage between them.

Jenkins parked the truck and we walked out on to the tract of national forest land in question. The day before coming here I’d immersed myself in the dry phraseology of the Land Adjustment Act, so I had accessibility on the mind, and I was keeping an eye trained on potential habitat degradation—signs that Boggs Mountain may have lost its value for wildlife species or the hunters who pursue them. I saw none of it. In fact, I was surprised by the ease with which we accessed Boggs Mountain and by the amount of wildlife sign readily apparent upon entry into the forest.

The Boggs Mountain tract’s inclusion in the Land Adjustment Act means that all 800 acres are actively being considered for a sale to any willing buyer with deep enough coffers to purchase it. Just who that buyer may or may not be is a long way from being determined, but the final decision ostensibly rests with the United States Forest Service.

One interested party that has made public its desire to purchase Boggs Mountain ,should it become available for sale, is the Rabun County Board of Commissioners.

“If they are going to sell it, we definitely want it,” said Rabun County Administrator Darren Giles. Though Giles does not sit on the Rabun County Board of Commissioners himself, he is tasked with handling the board’s day-to-day affairs and carrying out its stated goals. For his part, Giles does not believe that the USFS is managing the Boggs Mountain tract, or any of its sprawling Rabun County lands, as well as it should.

“I hate to punch the Forest Service in the gut,” he told me over the phone, “but they haven’t actively managed anything in our county in years. I mean, they have foresters, they have silviculturists, they have everyone on staff, but there’s nothing out there. They’re not actively logging. They’re not doing things that they have done in the past. We have a lot of mature forests out there.”

Giles went on to say that, as a resident of Rabun County and a hunter and fisherman himself, he does not personally want to see the tract sold off; that he empathizes with hunters who fear losing their access and their hunting right on Boggs Mountain.

“I’m a huge outdoor guy myself,” he said. “I hunt. I fish. My family didn’t own a lot of private land, so I’ve always utilized public land to do that on. I understand that concern.”

While he does believe that the county would “expand and add recreational value” via hiking, biking, and cross-country trails, should it someday obtain the land, he doesn’t foresee those expanded opportunities being extended to hunters as a user group. In fact, when asked if a sale of the Boggs Mountain tract to the county would limit access for the public land hunters who currently utilize it, his answer was straightforward.

“I would think so, yes,” he said. “If they were to do some sort of hiking trails, a larger portion of the public would be using that land so the hunting would probably be affected.”

But Giles doesn’t see the county purchasing the land any time soon, if it happens at all. He described the process of working with the USFS on land transfer issues as “moving like sorghum.” He said it’s been a year now since this issue came up with little to no action taken. Like Jenkins, he puts the onus for the potential sale of Boggs Mountain squarely at the feet of the Forest Service.

“We [the Rabun County Board of Commissioners] don’t want to see any public land sold,” Giles said. “The U.S. Forest Service is the one that identified it as a candidate for a potential sale. We just want to purchase it if they’re going to sell it. Most people around here would rather see it at least stay in the hands of the local government before it’s sold off to private interests.”

Rabun County already owns and manages several tracts of land adjacent to Boggs Mountain, at least one of which harbors a landfill that is nearing capacity. According to Giles, the most pressing project—and the one that would likely begin first if Rabun County manages to navigate the slow-moving machinations that stand between it and full ownership of the Boggs Mountain tract—would be an expansion of those landfill facilities.

The USFS says it is far from making its final decision on whether to sell Boggs Mountain to the Rabun County Board of Commissioners or any other interested buyer. According to Chattooga River District Ranger Ryan Foote, there are a number of biological surveys and environmental compliance studies that must be completed before the Boggs Mountain acreage could ever be listed for sale on the open market. He encourages those with concerns to make their voices heard via written correspondence to the Forest Service.

“There are a lot of local voices both for and against,” Foote said. “We are currently in the assessment phase, and there’s a lot of environmental due diligence that will have to be done before a final decision is reached. We are carefully documenting and keeping record of all public concern.”

Back on the Boggs Mountain tract, Jenkins and I crest a steep ridge and end up on what appears to be an old logging road. On the way up we passed a gin-clear stream, the contents of which will ultimately end up in the trout-filled waters of the nearby Wild and Scenic Chattooga River. A student of the land, Jenkins points out the subtle differences of multiple species of old-growth oak and hands me a sampling of acorns. The prolific mast seemed to blanket every inch of the forest floor. As we round out our short hike and end up back at the truck, he reiterates his hope that the Forest Service will continue to look critically at Boggs Mountain and may even decide to omit it from the long list of properties on the Land Adjustment Act list.