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National forest proposal provides fodder for Taylor-Shuler race

By Becky Johnson and Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writers

A plan to sell off more than 6,500 acres of the national forests in Western North Carolina has galvanized strong opposition in recent weeks, laying the issue at the feet of WNC congressional candidates U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, R-Brevard, and challenger Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville.

Their response has varied, however. Shuler has condemned the proposal, while Taylor has adopted a non-committal stance.

Shuler wrote an open letter to Taylor two weeks ago calling on Taylor to publicly oppose it.

“I urge you to join North Carolina families and me in opposing a policy that would be devastating to our tourism industry as well as to sportsmen now and for generations to come,” Shuler wrote.

The next week, Shuler held a press conference on Corbin Knob in Macon County — one of the tracts proposed for sale — and again called on Taylor to take a stand against the sale.

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“I want him to respond to this,” Shuler said. “I couldn’t sleep all weekend.”

Speaking to a group of about 20, Shuler said the land sale was billed as a way to fund education, but that education can be funded without selling national forests.

“This is not an either-or,” Shuler said.

Shuler recommended that the government stop subsidizing pharmaceutical and oil companies and instead use the money for education, rather than a stopgap sell-off of public land.

Shortly after Shuler’s press conference last Monday, Taylor issued a statement criticizing Shuler. Taylor said Shuler’s position was perhaps popular, but not in line with Shuler’s real estate dealings.

“Since Mr. Shuler has amassed a fortune cutting up the forests in East Tennessee to build expensive housing developments, his sudden opposition to plans to manage our national forests seems very contrary to what he is actually doing,” Taylor’s statement read.

Shuler countered that his experience in real estate actually gave him more credibility in opposing the land sale.

“I’ve been in the real estate business for a long time,” Shuler said. “This is not an example of how you should develop property.”

Taylor is also in the business of amassing real estate. He is the largest private landowner in Western North Carolina.

On a town meeting circuit through Franklin, Murphy and Marion prior to Shuler’s press conference, Taylor was ambushed with questions regarding the national forest sale. Taylor came out neither for nor against the sale specifically. He reminded the audience that it is only a proposal.

“Once legislation is formally presented to Congress, I will meet with county commissioners and the public in every area where there is a proposal to sell U.S. forest land, to determine what the wishes of the local people are,” Taylor said in a written statement. “We will take a close look at each piece of property proposed for sale. After meeting with people in the areas that are impacted, I will make a decision.”


Taylor could have final say

The money raised by the land sale would go to schools in counties with national forests. National forests don’t pay property taxes. Instead, the forest service made a promise nearly 100 years ago to contribute directly to local schools. Instead of paying the money out of federal coffers, the Bush Administration pitched the land sale as a way to fund a few more years of the school payments from forests.

Taylor is the chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the national forest service budget. Since the land sale would be part of the national forest budget, as is the outstanding promise by the forest service to give schools money, Taylor would have considerable sway on whether the proposal goes through.

The national forest used to contribute 25 percent of its logging revenues to schools. But after a sharp decline in logging in national forests in the 1990s due to environmental opposition, the payments dwindled. In 2000, Taylor co-sponsored a bill that provided fixed contributions from forests to schools that were not contingent on logging revenue.

“As a co-sponsor of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act, I strongly support efforts to provide more funding to the school districts of WNC, but will not compromise our region’s natural resources to do so,” Taylor said in a statement.

Some residents have not been satisfied with Taylor’s response. If Taylor does not come out clearly against the plan, it could cost him votes, even among typically conservative voters including hunters and horseback riders who could just as easily side with a pro-life, pro-gun Democrat like Shuler.

“All the horseback riders I’ve talked to in the past few weeks are against it,” said Dwight Caldwell, a member of the N.C. Backcountry Horsemen’s Association. Caldwell said anyone who was for the sale would lose votes in November, including his.

Others are confident that Taylor will stop the sale.

“Congressman Taylor said it has to cross his desk and he won’t let it happen,” said Harold Corbin, a Republican and community leader in Macon County. “He said he would have the final word. I am sure he won’t let it happen.”

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