The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (H.R. 1960) that passed in the House of Representatives on June 14th carried a last minute amendment (#291) introduced by Representative Doug Collins from the 9th District of Georgia. Amendment #291 transfers 282 acres of Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest land, the site of Army ranger training base Camp Frank D. Merrill, from the Department of Agriculture (Forest Service) to the Department of Defense. This parcel of land includes the headwaters of the Etowah River, and is surrounded by thousands of acres of Forest Service land. Camp Merrill has operated efficiently for the last 60 years under a lease agreement and memorandum of understanding between the Department of Defense and the Forest Service.
This amendment to the bill was inserted without discussing the pitfalls or merits with congress or with Rep. Doug Collins contingency. This action violates the spirit of democracy by not opening up discussions on important matters that directly affects the people that you represent.
Land transfers with the Department of Defense are already regulated by the “Interchange with Department of Defense Act of 1956”, which assures that the public’s interests and access are protected, the exchange of land is mutually beneficial, and the process is transparent. This mechanism not only ensures that the public is compensated for lost forest resources and public access, but allows citizens to have a voice in the process. Collin’s amendment bypasses this process and sets a dangerous precedent that could result in the loss of public land and access not just in Georgia, but nationwide. Moreover, if the transfer occurs and the Army determines they no longer need the land, it could potentially be sold to private developers rather than remain under the ownership of the Forest Service.
The Department of Defense possesses millions of acres of land across the United States, including over 476,000 acres in Fort Stewart and Fort Benning in Georgia alone. There is no need for this transfer, and it opens the door for other unilateral land transfers conducted with no review and no opportunity for public input.