Georgia ForestWatch Files Objection to the Cooper Creek Project with Partners SELC & GA Chapter of the Sierra Club
In a January 19, 2018, letter, the Blue Ridge Ranger District released its Final Environmental Assessment and a Draft Decision Notice with a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the Cooper Creek Watershed Project. Ranger Andrew Baker proposes to implement Alternative 3 with some “minor” modifications. ForestWatch reviewed these documents and filed an administrative objection to the project with our partners, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club, on Monday, March 19, 2018.
Our objection focused on the following issues:
1) The EA violates NEPA by failing to take a “hard look” at impacts to the following roadless areas: the Duncan Ridge roadless area, Board Camp roadless area, and Cooper Creek scenic area extension. To meet its “hard look” obligations, the Forest Service must consider the effects of logging and road building on currently unroaded areas, regardless of whether those areas have been formally designated “inventoried roadless areas.”
2) The EA violates the National Forest Management Act’s requirements related to lands suitable for timber production. Over 300 acres of commercial logging are proposed in an area that the Forest Service previously designated for dispersed recreation and “unsuitable for timber production.” Compounding this error, the agency proposes to create early successional habitat in this area in excess of Forest Plan limits.
3) The EA’s reliance on undisclosed mitigation measures to justify a No Significant Impact Finding for sedimentation effects on Bryant Creek is unsubstantiated and violates NEPA. Given the type of soils and intensity of cutting in the Bryant Creek watershed, there is a significant sedimentation risk to one of the best native trout streams in Georgia. Under NEPA, an agency can only rely on mitigation measures if it provides some evidence of their efficacy, which the Forest Service has not done.
4) The Forest Service violated NEPA by failing to adequately consider project alternatives proposed by ForestWatch, Sierra Club, and SELC. Our proposed Alternative Four involved the same management activities (e.g., thinning, canopy gap creation, early successional habitat creation, etc.) as the preferred project alternative, but in different quantities and locations in the project area.
ForestWatch is extremely grateful to all our members who have supported our opposition to what is arguably the worst project we have seen in many years. You helped us increase public awareness of this project, resulting in nearly 2,000 letters submitted to the project scoping and draft EA. While the project is still problematic, our combined efforts have led to significant improvements in the project since it was proposed.
Click here to read the entire administrative objection.
More information on the Cooper Creek Watershed Project can be found on the Forest Service’s website for the Cooper Creek Project. Click on the appropriate tab under Project Documents on left side of page to review .
OR use our links below to view the most recent documents.
Cooper Creek Update from Winter 2018 Forest News
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.
Worst Project We’ve Seen in Years
Southwest of Blairsville, Georgia, lies one of the hidden jewels of the Chattahoochee National Forest. The Cooper Creek area in Union County boasts clear native trout streams, backcountry hiking trails, and magnificent towering forests, and is a favorite destination for locals and recreational users across Georgia. Yet the Forest Service feels this area needs to be “improved” and has proposed a massive timber project that would remove 30-80% of the trees from more than 2,000 acres.
The Cooper Creek Watershed Project (http://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=44385) is the worst Forest Service project ForestWatch has seen in the last decade. Specific concerns on this aggressive project include:
- Over 75% of the stands in the watershed of Bryant Creek will be cut, threatening one of the best native trout streams in Georgia. Timber harvest activities, including the extensive road system that must be built to harvest timber, will increase soil erosion and raise water temperatures.
- Over 300 acres of commercial logging are proposed in an area that the Forest Service previously designated for dispersed recreation and “unsuitable for timber production.”
- The Forest Service is proposing to cut some of the best examples of mature, healthy oak forests and towering white pines. Mature oak forests have high wildlife value because acorns are an important food source for a wide variety of species.
- The Forest Service claims that a dense forest canopy is unhealthy, “limiting hardwood tree diversity and wildlife habitat.” But abundant rainfall and fertile soils naturally lead to dense canopies on most Southern Appalachian sites. As trees age, some fall and create small openings that provide wildlife habitat and high light for young trees to grow. This process is already happening in the project area, and will increase as the forest continues to recover from the last round of logging.
The Cooper Creek Watershed Project represents an alarming change from recent projects in the Chattahoochee National Forest because of its massive size, targeting of older stands, clustering of cuts in a sensitive watershed, and lack of true ecological justification. Georgia ForestWatch submitted rigorous comments on the project scoping and Draft Environmental Assessment, but the Forest Service needs to hear your voice, too.
Want more information?
Opportunity to Comment letter for Draft EA.
Forest News Winter 2016: “Cooper Creek Watershed Project Draft Environmental Assessment Released”
January 14, 2016 Press Release: Conservation groups call for improvements to proposed Cooper Creek timber sale
Forest News Summer 2015: “Cooper Creek Watershed Project Update”
Forest News Winter 2015: “Expanding Military Training Activities in Cooper Creek”
Forest News Summer 2014: “Cooper Creek Watershed Project”
Forest News Summer 2014: “Cooper Creek Project – Process for Environmental Analysis”