Summer 2014 Forest News

Georgia ForestWatch
Cooper Creek Watershed Project

Cooper Creek Watershed Project

By Jim Walker : District Leader

On May 2, 2014, Georgia ForestWatch and individual District Leaders received a scoping notice from the Blue Ridge Ranger District regarding the Cooper Creek Watershed Project. It was not unexpected, since the Forest Service has been working on plans for this project for more than three years. Georgia ForestWatch staff and volunteers attended a public meeting in 2011 to discuss needs for forest management in the watershed, and later went on a field trip to view the project area with the Forest Service and representatives from other groups and agencies.

But when the scoping notice arrived, we were very surprised by the sheer size of the proposed project, which includes 3,754 acres on 127 stands. Even more worrisome were the ages of the stands listed in the scoping notice: almost half of the stands (59) are over 100 years old, and another 25 are at least 90 years old.

The project is also very complex, proposing seven different types of treatments in the various stands: Oak/Oak-Pine Thinning, Pine/Pine-Oak Thinning, Canopy Gap Thinning, Early Successional Habitat, “Woodland Restoration,” Midstory Treatment, and Release. None of these treatments are clearcuts, but all of them except for the last two call for harvesting approximately half of the timber from the stands (or more in the case of Early Successional Habitat).  Of the other two, the Midstory Treatment is a preliminary stage in preparation for timber harvest later, and the Release Treatment is intended to remove “trees competing with desirable oaks or other soft and hard mast producing species” in stands that “were harvested by complete overstory removal [clearcut] without ensuring the presence of advanced oak regeneration ….”  Although more than 200 stands were clearcut in the last 45 years in the immediate vicinity of the project area, the Release Treatment is proposed on only 10 stands.

A few days after receiving the scoping notice, we went out to see some of the project sites for the first time. Altogether, Georgia ForestWatch District Leaders spent a total of 10 days surveying the proposed project, which was not nearly enough time to see even half of the stands.  However, Andrew Baker, the Blue Ridge District Ranger, has kindly agreed to let us continue to submit site-specific concerns after the June 6th comment deadline.

What we saw was shocking! It seems as if the whole project is based on the idea of finding the very best and oldest timber and cutting it down. The first two stands we looked at are slated for Early Successional Habitat, which translates to cutting down more or less everything except for a small number of required trees left for bat habitat. These stands are on exceedingly rich soil, with an herbaceous layer of black and blue cohosh, bloodroot, and trillium. The trees, mostly oaks, are large diameter and very tall, close to or greater than the age for old growth, and exhibited other old-growth characteristics, according to the Forest Service’s definition.

From there it only got worse. In one stand after another, with few exceptions, we saw magnificent forest stands and became more and more outraged at the idea of cutting it all down. Was the clearcutting of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s not enough? When will it end? When there is only one stand of big old trees left on the forest, or none at all?

With the indispensable help of the Southern Environmental Law Center, Georgia ForestWatch has written comments opposing the Cooper Creek Watershed Project and suggesting improvements. The scoping notice for the project can be found on the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest’s website under Land & Resources Management, Projects: 04-228 Coopers Creek Watershed Project. Read Georgia ForestWatch’s response.

Some of our objections are:

  • Much of the project (1,794 acres) is in Management Prescription 7.E.1, which according to the Forest Plan is “unsuitable for timber production.”
  • “Woodland Restoration” is proposed on 764 acres. The Forest Service’s efforts to create woodland at Brawley Mountain have not been successful so far, and the agency should not attempt another “woodland restoration” project until it has demonstrated the capability to do so on the smaller and less difficult topography of Brawley Mountain. In addition, the “woodland” part of the project area is in Management Prescription 9.H, which is intended for “restoration of historical plant associations and their ecological dynamics to ecologically appropriate locations.” But woodland is not ecologically appropriate on these sites.
  • Canopy Gap Thinning is proposed on 466 acres to enhance habitat for cerulean warblers, which have never been seen or heard in the area. And many of the Canopy Gap stands are already creating gaps naturally, as a result of large treefalls.
  • Eight of the 10 stands proposed for Early Successional Habitat are totally inappropriate. This type of treatment should be done in much younger, previously clearcut stands.
  • Many of the stands we have already seen do not conform to the description of stands for their treatment type. For example, some of the Pine/Pine-Oak Thinning stands, which are supposed to have high-density white pine, have little or no white pine at all.
  • Georgia ForestWatch opposes the indiscriminate use of herbicides on over 3,000 acres, particularly when the Brawley Mountain project has demonstrated the failure of foliar herbicide application to control “undesirable” stump sprouts.
  • A large portion of the project area is on slopes greater than 40%, which make logging exceedingly difficult.
  • The project will require construction of five miles of “temporary” roads, in addition to skid trails and dozens of landings large enough to allow room for tractor-trailers to turn around.
  • The proposal fails to take into account climate change, its adverse effects, and the increased likelihood of extreme rain events, the impact of which will be exacerbated by steep slopes and construction of roads and landings.

The Cooper Creek Watershed Project is by far the most objectionable project I have seen in 12 years of forest watching. The only good thing I can say about this project is that it guided me to some of the most magnificent forests I have seen anywhere on the Chattahoochee National Forest. I am glad I have had a chance to see these places while the trees are still standing. Georgia ForestWatch and Southern Environmental Law Center will do the best we can to save some of them for future generations.