by Jess Riddle : Forest Ecologist
The Foothills Landscape Collaboration remains the 800-pound gorilla in the room. ForestWatch attended all four recent Foothills Community Meetings as well as a canebreak restoration field trip and workshops on roads and water quality. While those and earlier meetings and field trips were about the Forest Service gathering ideas from all stakeholders, we are not sure whether our ideas were truly heard. The Forest Service has now put out its own ideas and vision for the Foothills. The just-released scoping notice details a project that includes everything from road changes to campsite management to an American chestnut seed orchard. We are still going through the scoping notice and visiting sites, but here are some early takes on the project.
At its core, Foothills remains a forestry project. Most striking are the number of acres proposed for various timber treatments:
- Canopy gaps – 8,100
- Early successional habitat – 9,500
- Oak maintenance – 25,000
- Oak restoration – 7,500
- Pine maintenance – 12,400
- Pine restoration – 5,800
- Pine plantation thinning – 13,800
- Woodland restoration – 7,400
These numbers do not represent a commitment or even a specific plan from the Forest Service. The scoping and other documents state that treatments are “proposed for up to” the listed figures. They come from overlaying on a computer maps of things like oak forests and gentle slopes. Further complicating the picture, a stand may be counted as a possibility for two or more treatments. Even with those caveats, the project may result in 50,000 acres of timber harvests. The project area encompasses 143,000 acres, several times the area of most projects. Still, the percentage included in timber harvests is much higher than recent projects.
Prescribed fire will also affect a large portion of the project area, up to 50,000 acres of burn units. Some timber treatments will require prescribed fire to be effective, but the prescribed fire discussions have mostly focused on reducing wildfire risk. Other activities will affect smaller, but still significant, areas. Felling trees into streams for trout has been proposed on many streams. Canebreak restoration, creating dense patches of native river cane, seems likely to proceed on select spots near the Chattooga River. Wildlife openings, essentially grassy fields, are proposed for many parts of the Foothills that do not currently have them. Recreation management changes – ranging from decommissioning little-used or logistically difficult areas, to expanding parking for popular areas – will include areas throughout the Foothills.
Like most Forest Service projects, whether or not these treatments are a good idea will come down to a question of location. Do the treatments fit the particular stands the Forest Service has chosen? Are pines so dense they need to be thinned? Is there old growth that needs to be protected? Are there major erosion risks? Does the stand include unique features that warrant protection? Answering these questions typically requires on-the-ground information. So far, “where” has been described in only a general sort of way, so it is difficult for us to say whether or not these treatments are a good idea. A mix of good and bad seems unavoidable.
Broader issues we’ve seen in other projects are present in the Foothills, too. All too often, proposed treatments address symptoms, but do not cure the disease. For instance, intense timber harvests are used to create early successional forests, which are used by many wildlife species and are in short supply. However, that approach does nothing to address why early successional forests are scarce in the first place. Beavers, intense fires, and forests old enough to be fully susceptible to wind damage – natural sources of early successional habitat – remain rare. This problem is part of a broader pattern of focusing on forest structure while giving short shrift to forest process, fire being an important exception.
The Foothills scoping and other documents also envision forest structure in idealized, easily managed terms rather than considering the full complexity of forest structure that occupies the Foothills. The Foothills Landscape Restoration Plan repeatedly calls the 100-year-old forests that are prevalent “late successional” and states that old forests are abundant on the landscape. That’s like calling someone in their 30s a senior citizen. Many of our tree species routinely live 200 or more years, and many forest processes are just getting started at 100 years. Similarly, the idea that forest stands are a single age, like tree plantations are, pervades the restoration plan. But, most natural forests in the region contain trees of many different ages in the canopy. The restoration plan’s distortions of forest structure and natural stand dynamics lead to artificial problems, like a lack of young oak forests. While there is a lack of young oak trees (our oak forests typically lack oak saplings in the understory), there is no reason to expect young oaks to be concentrated forests (stands) in this region.
As proposed, the Foothills project also includes some more concrete reoccurring problems. Prescribed fire is proposed on a very frequent interval, i.e., five years or less. We believe that frequency occurred only under special circumstances in the mountains, and that the prescriptions for frequent fire are often based on a misinterpretation of the scientific literature. New wildlife openings are proposed. Wildlife openings can be made in the rest of the state, but the national forest is the only large area of natural habitat in north Georgia. Many of the timber treatments have associated herbicide use. This project could result in herbicides being applied to tens of thousands of acres.
Unfortunately, negative or questionable features are receiving disproportionate attention, but the Foothills project also contains several features that are clear positives. Much of the proposed timber treatments focus on promoting oak and southern pine saplings, which are legitimately in short supply. Rare habitats are receiving attention in accord with their importance. The Forest Service has taken initiative in implementing guidance from the region and designating areas to be managed for old-growth. Finally, a large part of the project is tackling roads and recreation. These are potentially thorny issues, but the Forest Service is taking steps towards making them more sustainable, both financially and environmentally.