Thankfully, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires the Forest Service to consider the impacts of, and alternatives to its proposals. The current proposal for the Cooper Creek watershed presents many potential impacts that must be adequately considered, including: erosion and sedimentation; impacts to current or potential old-growth, brook trout, wildlife, rare species, scenic views, and recreation; and the effects of road construction. Moreover, the Forest Service must protect sustainable soil, water, and forest resources, at a minimum, to baseline standards established under the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) and ensure that projects are consistent with the forest’s overall management plan. The agency also must determine whether the project would impact any plants or animals listed under the Endangered Species Act or identified as “sensitive” by the Forest Service and consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding any possible effects on species protected by the Endangered Species Act.
In this first phase of the environmental analysis, the Forest Service defines the scope of the analysis. Working within the framework established by NEPA, the scoping comments that Georgia ForestWatch, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club submitted identified environmental impacts and issues that should be considered and should lead to the development of alternatives to avoid or minimize those impacts. First, this helps the Forest Service determine whether it must complete an Environmental Assessment (EA) or an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as the next step in the process, if it chooses to move forward. An EIS requires a more thorough assessment of a project’s impacts and careful consideration of ways to mitigate those impacts. To complete the less-burdensome EA, the Forest Service must show that it can avoid or adequately mitigate the adverse impacts identified in our scoping comments. Second, the assessment of impacts identified during scoping should drive the consideration of project alternatives, regardless of whether the Forest Service completes an EA or EIS. The Forest Service should consider alternatives that avoid or minimize the host of negative impacts associated with the current proposal. We hope and expect that the Forest Service will respond to these environmental and public concerns by going back to the drawing board to develop a sensible alternative that would protect and enhance the special forests and waters in the Cooper Creek watershed, not degrade them.
We commend the Forest Service for its assurance that the public will have another opportunity to comment on the draft analysis, even if it prepares an EA. It is important for the public to have an opportunity to review and comment on the adequacy of the environmental analysis before it is finalized. We hope that the Forest Service will develop and choose an alternative that conservation organizations can support. If concerns remain when the final EA or EIS is published, however, there will be an opportunity to ask a Forest Service official at a higher level to reconsider the decision. The Cooper Creek project is one of the first projects on the Chattahoochee that could use a new process for making these objections.
The scoping comments submitted by Georgia ForestWatch allow us to continue to participate in the environmental analysis and decision making process by reviewing the environmental analysis, bringing important environmental information forward for the Forest Service’s consideration, and proposing reasonable alternatives to the initial proposal, as well as preserving the right to object to a harmful decision.