by David Govus : District Leader and Board Member
As our planet continues to hurtle around the sun and the vernal equinox has come and gone, it is a good time to look back on what Georgia ForestWatch has been up to in the past year or so and what success we have enjoyed.
Roads, ATVs and fines:
After many years of lobbying on the part of ForestWatch, the Forest Service finally gated the Frosty Mountain road in 2015, as has been previously noted. This road parallels the Appalachian Trail Approach Trail, in many cases within eyesight, and had deteriorated to such an extent that it was being used as an off-road vehicle (ORV) course by convoys of Jeeps. This use was entirely inappropriate, particularly within a few miles of the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain. Georgia ForestWatch has continued to monitor the area, and when the gate was ripped down in 2016 we reported this to the Forest Service. Fortunately, the gate is now back up, and the individuals responsible have been convicted and fined.
Down at the state Capitol, Georgia ForestWatch once again played a pivotal role in blocking legislation that would have legalized the use of ATVs on public roads in Georgia. ATVs, or 4 wheelers, have long been a plague on public land and years ago ran wild on the Chattahoochee- Oconee National Forest. Back then, counties illegally sold license plates to ATV owners, thus allowing them to ride legally on the 1,500 miles of Forest Service roads in north Georgia. ForestWatch led a campaign that ended this practice in 2000, and blocked further attempts to change state law over the next five years that would have legalized licensing and given ATV owners the right to ride on public roads, including Forest Service roads.
Now the city of Atlanta is plagued by packs of hooligans who illegally ride ATVs in groups up to 200, blocking roads and threatening motorists. In an attempt to seek help for this problem, a well-intentioned but inexperienced representative of the City of Atlanta showed up at the state legislature last year and wound up in the hands of a pro-ATV legislator. The result was a craftily-written bill that, while appearing to restrict ATVs on public roads, would have actually have legalized them. Legislation is complex, and words and commas matter. Thanks to Neill Herring, state lobbyist for Sierra Club, ForestWatch and other environmental organizations in Georgia, ForestWatch learned of this effort and, with our long experience with these issues, managed to block the bill. This year Georgia ForestWatch cooperated with Rep. Joyce Shepherd of Atlanta in crafting a bill that would have increased the fines for operating an ATV on public roads. Unfortunately, this bill did not move.
Another long campaign came to a successful end when the schedule of fines for violations on the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest was increased. The Forest Service initiated this process over 10 years ago for a very good reason, as existing fines for offenses such as mudbogging, destroying gates, garbage dumping and illegal camping were, as one Forest Service official put it, “little more than user fees.” Unfortunately, the process became bogged down in red tape and ground to a halt. ForestWatch broke up this logjam with a vigorous lobbying campaign directed at the US Attorney’s Office and federal judges who had to sign off on the process. This was something that the Forest Service could not do, and when the campaign ended successfully we received thanks from the Forest Service. A good deal of credit for this success should go to Dan Bowden, longtime ForestWatcher and former Board member.
Conasauga Ranger District:
On the western side of the Forest, Georgia ForestWatch participated in public meetings with the Forest Service to help fashion a project in the Armuchee region under the provisions of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003, recently amended under the 2014 Farm Bill. This provision allowed the governors of these United States, upon consulting with the Forest Service, to declare part or all of National Forest land within their states as “unhealthy.” Remarkably, Governor Deal declared most of the Chattahoochee National Forest as “unhealthy.” The Forest Service has wide latitude under this act to implement large projects with very limited environmental review in areas designated “unhealthy.” Fortunately, in this instance the Forest Service proposed a modest and sensible project to thin offsite loblolly pine plantations in an attempt to move these areas back to a more natural mixed forest. The public input process was open and transparent, and both ForestWatch and our partner, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), felt that our presence at the table made a huge difference in the final project.
Elsewhere in the Conasauga Ranger District, Georgia ForestWatch has been analyzing a proposal by the Forest Service released in 2015 to cut 436 acres of timber in the Fightingtown Creek watershed for the creation of early successional habitat (ESH) – a young, brushy habitat that is favored by some wildlife species, in particular, ruffed grouse. A second component of the project called for the designation of 400 acres for old-growth conservation, a goal ForestWatch would like to see more of throughout the Forest. To the Forest Service’s credit, this project does not rely on the use of any herbicide to achieve its proposed objectives.
The proposal called for “regeneration” harvests that would remove 80- 90% of the trees in stands that have received various treatments over the last century, including stands recovering from recent clearcuts. Many observers, including myself, would call regeneration harvest a clearcut. Georgia ForestWatch delivered extensive comments arguing that excessive cutting of older stands with mast-producing oaks would be contrary to the 9.H. Management Prescription in these stands, i.e. “management, maintenance, and restoration of historical plant associations and their ecological dynamics.” We suggested cutting 30- to 40-year-old clearcuts, since these have no mast production and fewer benefits to wildlife instead of cutting healthy, mature forests.
Georgia ForestWatch submitted an alternative proposal and participated in an all-day field trip to the project area with staff from the Forest Service, Ruffed Grouse Society and University of Georgia. The Forest Service has responded with a modified proposal that is taking a more “outside the box” approach to creation of ESH, and swapping three of their original stands with three stands that ForestWatch recommended. These changes have reduced acres cut from 436 to 195 acres, leaving more mature oaks in the project area. Although ForestWatch still has concerns about the project, compromises were made on all sides, and the result is much better than the original proposal. ForestWatch awaits the final decision on this project, due this summer.
Cooper Creek Update:
Georgia ForestWatch, along with SELC and the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club, continue to follow the Cooper Creek timber cutting project as it evolves in an attempt to reduce the size of the project and lessen its impact on the environment. Planning for this project began in 2011, and it was formally proposed in 2014. Since then, the project has been reduced from 3,700 acres to 2,500 acres, and proposed herbicide use has been significantly reduced from 3,251 to 1,327 acres. A vigorous publicity campaign by Georgia ForestWatch and the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club contributed to over 1,300 comments to the Forest Service on the project, with the vast majority opposing it. It now appears that a draft decision on the project will be announced this summer. ForestWatch, SELC and the Sierra Club will carefully review the decision and pursue all opportunities and actions necessary to minimize impacts from this large timber sale.
Georgia’s Mountain Treasures Project:
As always, ForestWatch’s Forest Ecologist Jess Riddle has been very active cataloging old-growth areas and special places on the forest. Jess is out in the woods at least once a week and often more frequently, covering many miles, and has compiled a wealth of information about the Chattahoochee National Forest and its natural and man-made features. All of this information has been archived and will be used to update the report, Georgia’s Mountain Treasures: The Unprotected Wildlands of the Chattahoochee National Forest, first published in 1995 by The Wilderness Society with input from Georgia ForestWatch and other conservation partners. Updating this report will be extremely useful when the revision process for the current Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest Plan begins in the next couple of years. The goal, of course, is to provide permanent protection to as much of the Forest as possible. As the Forest Service budget has been slashed with funds diverted to fighting wildfires, and its staff come and go at a dizzying rate, Georgia ForestWatch, in many instances, possesses greater on-the-ground knowledge of the Forest than the Forest Service. This is quite a feat when you compare ForestWatch’s meager budget to that of the Forest Service.
As always, Georgia ForestWatch stays busy and punches well above its weight.