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WEDNESDAY, APRIL 5, 2006
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EDITORIAL

Selling land to finance government bad policy

"The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much," says the biblical book of James.

Maybe, maybe not, say scientists. A study released last week found that prayers offered by strangers did not affect patients' recovery from heart surgery, and that patients who knew they were being prayed for had more complications after surgery — perhaps because of anxiety related to the prayers.

Researchers including Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute near Boston, used rigorous scientific methods.

They divided patients into three groups and organized church groups to pray for two groups of patients but not for the third group. Half the patients who received the prayers were told they were being prayed for, while the other half were told they might or might not receive prayers.

Scientists even wrote a partial script for prayers — the phrase "for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications."

The study concerned strangers' prayers, not the personal interaction described in James: "Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed."

But a lot of religious people would dispute the idea that strangers' prayers are ineffective. They can cite many experiences that scientists would discount as anecdotal evidence.

Perhaps the most astute expert criticism of the study was this: Nobody knows how much prayer each of the patients received from friends, families, and congregations everywhere who pray daily for the sick and dying.

Religious people should find it gratifying that scientists consider prayer to be a serious enough topic to spend $2.3 million on this study. But religion and science usually serve society better when they keep a respectful arm's length — as we've seen in the debate about creationism and evolution.

We don't need scientists telling us whether to pray or preachers deciding what schools will teach about science.

The worst reason for selling national forest land is to provide local governments with money to spend. Yet, that's one of the lures the federal government dangles before rural counties as it musters support for another sell-off of forest lands.

This one involves 300,000 acres nationwide, with 3,220 to come from Alabama's three national forests, Bankhead, Conecuh and Talladega.

Sharing the profits with counties from well-managed cutting programs is sound policy. But this is shortsighted policy to sell land to help finance schools and road building.

National forests belong to all U.S. citizens and are there for all to use and enjoy.

The U.S. Forest Service is casting the proposed sale as sound land management. Some of the land is unfit for use, some is isolated and some not contiguous to forests. But forest service spokesman Joseph Walsh acknowledged the government may not have to sell all of the 300,000 proposed acres to raise the $800 million target amount.

Lawrence County received $246,299 last year in forest revenue as one of the counties in 41 states that get forest revenue. The seven tracts of land proposed for sale in Lawrence County amount to 834.33 acres.

The government has a long history of sharing forest revenue with counties in which land is located as payment in lieu of the taxes the property would generate if it were owned privately. But critics say conservation practices strain the government's ability to sustain payments. This sale would be a subsidy to dwindling annual payments.

The forest service extended the deadline for taking public comments on the proposed sale until May 1.

That's good because at this point the motivation for selling the land isn't clear. Selling land to support these government functions isn't in the public's best interest.

National forests are under enough pressure from entrepreneurial interests without having politicians from rural counties joining forces with them.

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