Lawmakers cautious of forest protection plan - Some say proposal is hidden form of eminent domain

Deanna Wrenn
Daily Mail Capitol reporter

Wednesday November 20, 2002

West Virginia - A program that would protect West Virginia's forests against development is moving too fast for some lawmakers, who worry the venture would be a disguised form of eminent domain.

Under the Forest Legacy Program, the federal government pays landowners 75 percent of the value of their land if the owners agree not to develop the property. Land can still be used for traditional forest activities, including logging, recreation and wildlife preservation.

Once landowners agree to the deal and take the money, the land can never be used for anything but traditional uses.

That could hinder landowners in the future, legislators worry, and could also restrict the state if it decided to build a road on the property in later years.

West Virginia is now in the planning stages of implementing the program, now that Gov. Bob Wise ordered the national program to begin last year in the state.

The Division of Forestry is already working on the project.

Assistant State Forester James Warren explained the program to legislators in interim meetings earlier this week. Some wondered why they hadn't heard of it before.

"I'm not so sure something like this shouldn't be run through the Legislature," said Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne. "This is like an executive order."

Lawmakers want more time to study the implications.

"This should be a positive for the timber industry, but it could conceivably take away from future value," said Committee Chairman Walt Helmick, D- Pocahontas. "We need a lot of time on this issue."

More than 30 states have already joined the Forest Legacy Program, and 117 projects in 19 states have been completed, Warren said.

West Virginia is currently in the planning process. The Division of Forestry received a grant to prepare necessary documents to participate in the program.

Each state determines what land will qualify and then recommends areas that should be part of the program to the U.S. secretary of agriculture.

State officials here aren't sure yet which areas might be included for the program, but to be eligible for the program they must have significant environmental value or be threatened by present or future development to non- forest uses.

Writer Deanna Wrenn can be reached at 348-1796.


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