Feds Have Sent Nearly $650 Million to Private Forest Owners

May 12, 2010

In a continuing effort to draw the private sector into forest conservation efforts, the US Forest Service has awarded a total of $72 million to 36 property owners in 33 states and territories (chosen from 84 applicants requesting a total of $194 million). The recipients must use the money to apply a conservation easement to their land, with the goal of preventing development or other uses of the land that would reduce its forest value. The federal funding comes through the USFS Forest Legacy Program. Some matching funds must be provided by private, state, or local sources.

Each of the grantees received funding in the range of $230,000 to $4,160,000. A detailed list of the winners is included in an April 14, 2010, USDA press release:

The USFS says that 57% of the country's forested lands are in private hands, and that the Forest Legacy Program has helped to protect about 2 million acres since its inception in 1992. During that time, $645 million has been awarded (though not all of it has been spent).

The winning landowners are selected based on a number of criteria applied at both the state and federal level, including the importance of anticipated public benefits, the perceived threat to the land's forest values, and the ability of the land to mesh with and support nearby conservation efforts.

For each property, the owner must propose specific acreage to be protected, and must obtain an appraisal for that acreage that meets federal standards (e.g., conducted by a certified appraiser, reviewed by another certified appraiser, etc.).

However, in recent years there have been significant challenges in a number of states to appraisals done for various conservation easements (not necessarily related to this program), and many have been found to be bogus.

USFS spokesman Phil Sammon, 202-205-1782, says that the USFS reviews each participating state's program every five years for general compliance, and at similar intervals does some quality assurance checks on the appraisal processes used. However, it appears that the USFS has done no detailed assessment of the specific outcomes of the program to determine if the money has been spent wisely.

Your coverage of the recent recipients, as well as past recipients, can focus on a number of angles, such as:

  • Were the best properties selected? How do the losing landowners feel? How do the neighbors of the winning landowner feel?
  • Was the land appraised appropriately and accurately?
  • Is it acceptable for some landowners to be awarded funds in numerous years, as has happened?
  • How do the lobbying, campaign contributions, and other influence-peddling efforts of winning landowners compare with those of landowners not selected?
  • Are the proper criteria for determining public benefit, development threat, and coordination with other conservation efforts being used?
  • Has this expenditure of far more than half a billion dollars been worth it? Is this funding the best possible complement to other efforts related to private forest lands conservation?