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Agenda 21

Text of an Interview with Chuck Cushman, Founder of the American Land Rights Association
By Staff
Sep 20, 2003 - 10:06:00 AM

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The following is an edited transcript of Chuck Cushman's appearance 4/3/99 on "Fish and Plowman" WVOM-FM 103.9/WBYA-FM 101.7. Reprinted by permission of Scott K. Fish, owner/editor of the online publication,

Mary Adams: Chuck, if somebody were starting from knowing absolutely nothing about land acquisition, what would you tell them is the problem with federal or state buying of land? On the surface, it doesn't seem like anything could be wrong with it. You're from the west. You've been through the spotted owl problems, you've seen economies decay, you've seen land acquisition by the federal government, and you've traveled the country with these problems.

Chuck Cushman: Perhaps it would be good for me to put this in perspective. I was a volunteer for the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society. My father was a Ranger for the Park Service. I was in the first Student Conservation Corps in Olympic National Park. I grew up in a National Park. My father bought his home in Yosemite National Park in 1954 and was told in 1962 if he didn't sell his cabin to the Park Service he would never work for them again. Their version of "Let's Make A Deal."

In 1970 a friend and I bought a small log cabin (700 square feet) in Yosemite National Park on private land. We began coming up to our home over time and finding our neighbors' homes burned to the ground. Not all at once. We'd ask what happened. "Oh, the Park Service bought that and burned it down." Then the Park Service let it be known they were going to eliminate all the private homes in Yosemite, wipe out our entire community which had existed from well before the Park was there.

We realized we had to fight back and ultimately saved our community. People all across the country contacted us and said, "Well, golly. If you can save yourselves can you save us?"

We ought to talk about this bill before Congress (S-25), this Billion Dollar Trust Fund which is going to fund this. Alot of listeners may not think the government has the money to do this. I'm sorry to say they do.

But what happens typically is, first of all an environmental group or a state bureaucracy land trust advocates the creation of federally-managed areas. The Great North Woods and the northern forests of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York have been targeted for the last 10 or 12 years by The Northern Forest Alliance.

Their intent, ultimately, is to get Congress to divide the northern forest, to buy out the lands of the timber companies and turn them into new national parks, national forest areas, fish and wildlife refuges. Now some listeners may say, "Gee, that sounds great. We're going to get alot from that." Well, if they're used to traditional access they're in for a big surprise. If they're used to hunting, they're in for a big surprise. If they're used to recreation -- snowmobiling, berry picking, getting to places where they can normally do their thing -- they're in for a big surprise.

When the government buys these areas they ultimately head toward wilderness designation. They put a circle around it and a fence up. Unless you can hike in -- you're done. You can't drive motorized vehicles in there.

This also has a tremendous effect on local jobs. The timber industry and many others.

Here's how it happens.

Congress decides a certain area should be in a national park. The Park Service comes in to buy land. Let's assume they don't use condemnation, which is a big part of what the Park Service does. Condemnation is "eminent domain" where they basically tell you, "We're going to buy your property whether you like it or not. If you don't like it we'll take you to court and take it anyway."

Scott Fish: Another “willing seller.”

CC: You bet. If they condemn your property, take you through over a five-year court process, and you get to the court house steps and settle on a price -- you go in their sheets as a willing seller. Only if the judge rules on the case is it consider a condemnation by the Park Service.

This isn't just opinion. I've been in nearly every National Park in the country where land acquisition takes place over the last 25 years. I was appointed by Ronald Reagan to the National Park System Advisory Board. There's a string of General Accounting Office reports that document what I'm telling you.

But listen to how they tear apart a community.

No matter where you live there are people thinking about selling or moving. They'll try to get those people first. People who have job changes, job dislocations -- they'll buy those. They'll try to establish a low price by buying from widows and people in stress situations; divorce situations, people financially under the gun. They establish that price then go to people who don't want to sell. They've now got the price locked in at a low rate so they don't have to pay as much.

They begin to checkerboard the community. They buy the land -- not where they need it -- but where people will sell it. Soon the community doesn't look like it once did. There aren't enough kids in the school. Tax rate goes down. Services begin to dwindle. Churches close. Libraries close. The tax base shrivels more. Schools begin to close. You have to bus your kids a longer way.

The Park Service targets businesses. This is the federal government. The Fish & Wildlife Service operates the same. They target job supplying institutions, companies. If they can buy out that company they've taken alot of jobs and forced the people who used to work there to move.

Over time, 10-15 years, they strangle - systematically cut-off - the community. There is a hardy group of folks willing to deal with the hardships, the drive for 50-100 miles to the grocery store, the fact that there aren't services that companies supply. Over a very short period of time the town turns into a ghost town.

You can look at Arock in Redwood National Park. Redwood National Park was supposed to bring in 2 million visitor use days a year. It's never gotten over 300-400 thousand. In California that's chicken feed. The Arock community was sold a bill of goods on “tourist dollars."

The same thing in Voyagers National Park in Minnesota. They were promised 1.2 million visitors. It didn't happen. The Park Service said, "No problem. You can still use traditional means of access; your float planes, snowmobiles, motorized boats." Over time the Park Service ratcheted those things down. Snowmobiles and boats are no longer allowed. Even if visitors come they can't go where they want or use the tools to get there.

If this sounds very harsh - go visit one of these areas.

MA: Chuck, we have very little federal land in Maine. The State governor and several people in the Legislature want to mount a state acquisition of public land. Tell us how state land can become federal land. Or can it?

CC: Absolutely. Typically the process goes like this. Congress tries to put a circle around an area. Senator Leahy (D-VT) has been trying to do that for years with the Northern Forest Stewardship Act. That makes the area an official federal target. Then they need funding. They're trying to pass a bill right now called the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, a Billion Dollar Land Acquisition Trust Fund that would provide money to federal agencies and state governments to buy land.

First, Congress tries to designate an area a park or a refuge. States get involved and buy large tracts of land: timber land, shorelines land, lake land. I'm not saying all this is bad. Land acquisition can be good. Land acquisition is like aspirin. Two are good for you. One hundred will put you in the hospital. The problem is these Park Service land acquisition officials and state bureaucrats want control. When have you ever met a bureaucracy that didn't want more jobs, more land, more money?

You're going to hear alot about planning. Tell me the name of one planning process, anywhere in the country, by any federal or state agency, that resulted in more timber production, more grazing, more mining, more access for snowmobiles, or less restriction on private property?

MA: I can't.

CC: I've been asking that question for a couple of years. Not one person has come forward with a planning process that gave our people more. So we're arguing about how much they're going to take, not if they're going to take it.

SF: Chuck, State land acquisition proponents are telling Maine legislators, "We can buy more public land without shutting down productive forest land." Have you seen this in other parts of the country?

CC: Well, that's the promise. First of all, look at the organizations leading this effort. Look at the membership of the Northern Forest Alliance. They don't allow timbering in any National Park in the country. Then ask the question: Is government a better steward of the land or is the private sector? I don't know of a state managed forest in the country that does better than privately managed land. There may be one, I'm just not aware of it. And I've talked with timber folks all over the country.

So the state buys land, the land goes off the tax rolls. Counties, communities or townships now have to support services and its roads with less land. That means more taxes for the people who remain. This process gets larger the more land government buys.

Same thing if a land trust buys a huge amount of land. This has been happening recently in Maine with local townships not knowing about it until they wake up and half their future tax base is gone overnight. One Senator out west referred to the way the Park Service, Forest Service and Fish & Wildlife Service operate as "cultural genocide" or "cultural cleansing." They systematically go out and drive people out of rural areas into cities. You can look at this as an hysterical right-wing comment. I'm sorry to say that there are many examples.

Stehekin’s a wonderful little community in the north Cascades. When Congress created the North Cascades National Park they deliberately set aside Stehekin and put it in a national recreation area to allow grazing, mining and water power things for the community, that a subsistence type of community could continue.

But the Park Service can't abide that. The Park Service bought most of the land. The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, were outraged. Read the GAO report, "Lake Chelan Should Be Returned to Private Ownership." This is a 50 mile lake with fjord-like qualities in western Washington state. It was just stunning to see this wonderful little pioneering community, Stehekin, where no road could get to systematically destroyed over time.

This is a micro-example of what you can expect to see in the North Woods. A systematic dismembering of the economic ecosystem.

What happens when you take out a large timber company and say you're going to keep timber production? Maybe 70 percent of those lands stay in timber production, 30 percent are taken off. Then they take another 10 and 20 percent until all the land is out of production. The people involved have forgotten the original promises. Right now Congress is thinking about buying more land because most of the Congress wasn't there during the heyday of mass land acquisition and condemnation. In 1979 there were 21,000 condemnations in process at one time by the whole federal government and half of them were by the Park Service.

These kinds of things are going on right now. The Saddleback Mountain Ski area has been struggling with the Park Service and the Appalachian Trail for 17 years, trying to settle on a trail route and stay in business. The Park Service will never give up. They've threatened condemnation of 5-6 thousand acres. Jobs have been strangled.

Another example in Maine is Wass Island. The Nature Conservancy secretly planned to set up a National Natural Landmark which included a good part of the town and didn't even tell the local people. The application was in process 10 years and the local people never knew. When we told them they had a meeting with 1,000 people attending. The only person for the Natural Landmark was the Nature Conservancy official.

Acadia National Park was originally set up with no condemnation. Then in a special bill worked out by some well-connected city fathers Congress allowed condemnation. They targeted certain landowners who were kept out of the process and had no idea this was happening.

People need to know: once a bill passes that doesn't mean that's how it stays. Later on, compromises and agreements can go away. People’s rights never get larger and their land always gets smaller. We can argue over how long it takes, but that's how it works.

MA: What happens when land trusts like the Nature Conservancy buy land or hold "conservation easements?" You can control land without actually paying market value for it.

CC: They end up paying alot. A timber company, for example, gets 70 percent of its land value and doesn't have to give up its least at first. Then the controls begin to ratchet down. The timber company can't build roads where they want to. They have to use different kind of construction. They can't use heavy equipment. They have to begin using helicopter logging.

It starts with a small portion of the logging area then gradually expands. Jobs begin to shrink. It's very subtle, takes 10-15 years to complete, but over time, whether it's in state ownership, the Nature Conservancy or the Trust for Public Land.... People need to understand those agencies. The Nature Conservancy holds onto alot of land. But most of what they buy is sold to the federal government eventually. So people should view these land trusts as conduits, a way for environmental groups and state and federal governments to ultimately get this land into federal or state ownership. It’s usually done in a sly, quiet way that doesn't overly alarm the populace or build up opposition. But the end result is the same. In 20 years people won't recognize their communities because the jobs won't be there. The communities will be shriveled up.

MA: Chuck, we've got a governor who's very charming and popular. It seems to me he is leading a Trojan horse right through the gates. After he's gone we're going to have to live with the devastation he's promoting. How are people going to understand? How are we going to let people know to tell Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to stay away from the Billion Dollar Land Trust in Congress? How are we going to defend ourselves against this?

CC: For most people a battle like this is overwhelming. It's too big. They have to remember - every letter counts. The most important thing in politics, the most important communication vehicle, the most important thing a person can do is to write their Senator or Congressman in opposition to a bill. If Mainers help stop the Billion Dollar Trust Fund it'll make it harder for the State of Maine to get money to buy land.

But you still have bills to create these massive land acquisition funds on the state side. So people are going to need to contact their state legislators and express opposition. And because alot of the population doesn't live in the rural areas of Maine -- this is common across the country -- people need to contact their friends, their relatives, their suppliers, their vendors, anybody who lives in the population centers or the larger communities, and tell them how much this land acquisition process will hurt. And urge them to oppose it in their local area.

It's very important that your Senators and Congressmen hear about this issue now. Quickly. It is right at the apex of action in Congress. If a person writes a one-page letter from the heart, then follows it up a few weeks later when they get an answer with another one.... We call them ankle-biters. They get their teeth around their Congressman's shoe leather and hang on. Don't let go!

SF: Chuck you mentioned the Northern Forest Alliance targeting the North Woods of Maine. What should Mainers think if the Maine spokesperson for the Northern Forest Alliance in Maine, Karen Tilberg, is married to the Assistant House Democrat Leader?

CC: Well, I don't know what they talk about on the pillow, but I don't think I'd go to bed at night comfortable that my property rights were being protected. I think I'd worry about that alot. The Northern Forest Alliance is an association of very large land trusts, environmental groups trying to take over, with the federal and state governments, the private land of the northern forests. They've been planning this over 15 years. Almost all of their comes from out-of-state. Their headquarters, I think, is in Boston. They don't trust private landowners.

SF: Chuck ,there are well-meaning Maine trappers, hunters, sportsmen, fishermen and their organizations endorsing the purchase of more government land.

CC: The National Trappers Association is an ally of ours. They know from other parts of the country that the trappers lose access. These people in Maine are going to lose access. In every battle we get involved in local people tell us, "Gee, Chuck. If we had just a second time. If we had known what we know now we could defeat this thing. We would understand what the other side is going to do." Mark my words. Remember it. Fishermen and snowmobilers are going to have less access, not more.

There are dozens of government controlled areas across the country that don't exist because we helped local landowners and communities fight back. People need to know they can be successful. They can win. We teach them how to do it in a peaceful, nonviolent, fun way. We show them tricks, tools and tactics. They can have a good time and compete on the political playing field with those opposed to them.

MA: Thanks, Chuck.

Editor's Notes:

The Magic City Morning Star welcomes opposing opinions. Staff, members, or supporters of The Nature Conservancy, RESTORE: The North Woods, or any other environmental organization, are invited to submit opinion pieces or other articles of interest to our readers. We can attain and maintain objectivity only when all sides of an issue participate in the discussion.

© Copyright 2002-2013 by Magic City Morning Star

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