Two farmers have received at least $200,000 in federal subsidies since 2000 for cultivating more than 2,100 acres in the Land Between the Lakes, which sprawls for 235 square miles.
For abiding by some restrictions and leaving 20 percent of what's planted in the field to feed wildlife, the farmers get the land for $10 an acre in an area where farmland leases for $78 to $99 an acre, according to the U.S. Forest Service and an agricultural economist.
The Forest Service has issued dozens of permits for farming in national forests and national recreation areas. However, it appears only those in Land Between the Lakes receive federal subsidies, according to multiple Freedom of Information Act requests to the nine U.S. Forest Service districts, a search of farm subsidies from 2000 through 2006 and interviews conducted by The Associated Press.
Oregon-based Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics filed papers June 3 in U.S. District Court in Paducah, asking a judge to end the farmers' payments. The group's executive director, Andy Stahl, said it's the only forest system area that's been enrolled in the farm subsidy program — and he further contends it shouldn't be.
Former residents have also been left feeling betrayed, saying some 5,000 families were forced off homesteads in the 1960s to create the national recreation area. Some of those farms had been passed down for more than 200 years.
"If the government wants to pay farmers to plant the fields for the wildlife, so be it, but no one should make a dime off our sacrifice," said Carolyn Sue Bonds, who used to live in the area. "I had rather see the land covered in briars and saplings rather than a single ear of corn harvested and sold from that land."
Allison Stewart, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C., declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Kathryn Harper, project director for Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, also declined to comment on the lawsuit.
When the land was seized, houses were torn down; the town of Golden Pond was reduced to a rest stop. Fields became overgrown with plants, trees and natural flowers. Other than old family cemeteries, most signs of human habitation were removed.
But government officials soon allowed farming to return. About 30 farmers secured permits to grow crops and harvest hay in the new recreation area.
First, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which initially oversaw the area, granted the permits. Now farmers go through the Forest Service, which took over management of Land Between the Lakes in the 1990s.
Kerry Underhill's family is one of five who still farm in the area. Underhill's family was among those run out of the area when the federal government impounded the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, creating two lakes that bounded the new Land Between the Lakes to the east and west.
Underhill, of Cadiz, Ky., and Bobby Cunningham, of Dexter, Ky., have permits to grow corn and soybeans in parts of the recreation area, while three other farmers have permits to mow fields and collect hay. The government pays the farmers for corn and soybeans to supplement their income and help manage commodity supplies.
Underhill Farms has about 800 acres scattered across 30 miles in the Land Between the Lakes, with another 2,600 acres split among three hay farmers and Cunningham. Underhill said the land isn't terribly profitable — one field was a mix of cut corn stalks, chewed-up corn cobs and rocks — but farming it keeps the fields from being overgrown.
"We survive, that's about it," said Underhill, who also receives subsidies for his family farm on private land. "If you're in farming to get rich, you're in the wrong occupation."
Underhill was initially interviewed in April 2007. He has not returned e-mail and phone messages from The Associated Press since the lawsuit was filed.
Greg Halich, an agricultural economist with the University of Kentucky, said land in western Kentucky leases for anywhere from $25 to $200 per acre. However, it usually goes for about $78 to $99, depending upon the price of corn and how well the land produces.
An acre of corn can produce about 125 bushels on average, and those bushels sell for about $5.50 each, Halich said.
Each year, the Forest Service bids five or six farming permits for the acreage, said Harper, the area's project manager. The corn and soybean fields provide food for wild animals, saving the Forest Service the costs of some food and mowing the fields.
But Stahl, of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, said the fields should be allowed to grow naturally, so animals can eat native plants and bugs.
"Don't we already have enough corn and soybean farms without one in a national recreation area?" Stahl asked.
David Nickell, a one-time resident of the area whose family cemetery is near the north entrance, said his family was told that farming would be banned among other commercial activities because it wouldn't fit the wilderness feel officials wanted there.
Kara Spoon of Anaheim, Calif., whose family lived between the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers for nearly 200 years, said the farming and subsidies appear to be another way for the government to commercialize the area.
"It could be just another way for the government to go in and make money off the land they kicked my ancestors off of," Spoon said.