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Communities Must Be Vigilant

Throughout Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia, the people who live surrounded by some of the most beautiful and biologically diverse forestlands in the world have spoken. And they have spoken for our forests, a sustainable economy, and our heritage.

A coalition of fishermen, hunters, environmental groups, businesses, religious leaders and unaffiliated average Americans let the Bush administration know that its misguided proposal to temporarily fund rural schools by selling 300,000 acres of our public national forests — approximately 3,000 in Tennessee, 7,000 in North Carolina and nearly 5,000 in Georgia — would not fly.

Due to this groundswell of support for preserving our region’s ecological heritage, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle refused to move the forest-sale legislation this summer, effectively killing it. It was a victory for all of us in the Southeast. But the threats to our forest-based heritage remain. And we must be vigilant if we are going to preserve it for our children and grandchildren to enjoy and benefit from economically.

Now that we’ve successfully protected a portion of our local forestland from being sold off by the federal government, it’s time to protect it more permanently from poorly conceived, poorly planned private development.

Numerous environmental and conservation groups are with us in this struggle, as are state agencies dedicated to environmental protection. Tennessee’s Heritage Conservation Trust Fund, for example, recently bought 13,000 acres of land from paper industry giant Bowater on the Cumberland Plateau, an environmentally rich region that spans six southeastern states.

Furthermore, the Bowater Corporation has chosen to practice more sustainable forest management. In its recent agreement with the Dogwood Alliance and Natural Resources Defense Council —which has designated the Cumberland Plateau one of 12 BioGems, biologically rare and threatened regions in the Americas — the company chose to forgo forest conversion, protect ecologically important areas, and limit its use of chemicals

But Bowater still has hundreds of thousands of acres it’s trying to sell and much of that land might go to private developers. Thousands of acres of forestland are also for sale by other, less scrupulous timber and paper companies. And state government, land trusts and environmental groups can only do so much. That’s where the rest of us come in — those who stand to gain the most from living in a region that is both environmentally and economically sound.

First of all, we need to accept the common-sense reality that environmental protection is good for our property values, our drinking water supplies, our health and our spiritual well-being. People will pay a premium to live where the air, water and landscape are pure and pristine, and these types of surroundings bring peace of mind.

Secondly, we must balance development with environmental protections by using some of the sound planning practices that hundreds of communities throughout America have used for decades. We do not have to allow each and every form of development to control us.

We can do this by carefully adopting targeted land use protection laws that encourage developers to conserve ecologically and culturally essential areas.

No matter how we plan at the local level, the point is to begin now before the accelerating and inevitable onslaught of development overwhelms our heritage: our precious and limited natural resources.


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