By Jess Riddle : Forest Ecologist
The original plans for the Cooper Creek Watershed Project issued in 2014 included a laundry list of serious problems: hundreds of acres of forest on extremely steep slopes were proposed for harvest; intense, near-clearcut harvests were planned in mature, diverse cove forests; one old-growth stand was slated for a cut-and-leave timber treatment; tree cutting treatments were planned across 83% of the watershed of Bryant Creek, one of Georgia finest remaining native brook trout streams; over 700 acres of woodland restoration were planned without any evidence of historical woodland in the area; and herbicides were to be sprayed on over 3,000 acres. Hundreds of acres of commercial timber harvests were also planned in areas the forest plan calls “not suitable for timber production.” Together, these activities threatened forests, streams, and recreation.
After field trips, meetings, and nearly 2,000 letters from the public, the plans have changed substantially. On January, 31, 2018, the Blue Ridge Ranger District released the Draft Decision Notice with a Finding of No Significant Impact and Final Environmental Assessment for the project, which included their conclusions about how Cooper Creek should be managed. Some issues show great progress while others show little. The district removed most of the stands on very steep slopes from the project. They also dropped the old-growth stand from the project. The district has moved the most intense harvests to less diverse stands, as a whole, but they remain targeted mostly at mature stands. The woodland restoration treatments have been reduced to the 124 acres with the harshest growing conditions; we still believe woodlands were unlikely to have occurred in this area, but these are the least unlikely sites. The district now plans to use herbicides on 589 acres.
The Bryant Creek watershed remains the core of this project. Buffers along Bryant Creek and its tributaries have been broadened, but between this project and past Forest Service clearcuts, only a handful of the dozens of stands in the watershed will escape cutting entirely. The concentration of harvest remains a threat to water quality in Bryant Creek and wildlife in the watershed. Activity within “unsuitable” prescriptions has been reduced, but most of the commercial timber harvests remain.
Georgia ForestWatch is currently evaluating next steps. We will continue to work with the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club to improve the project that is actually implemented.
To read the Final Environmental Assessment and Draft Decision Notice for the Cooper Creek Project, go to the Forest Service’s website for the Cooper Creek Project (https://www.fs.usda.gov/ project/?project=44385). Click on the “Subscribe to this feed” link at the top left of the page, and then scroll down to the bottom of the project page for the most recent documents.