Wildcat Mountain sunset e by peter mcintosh

Photo provided by Peter McIntosh

Watergauge Project

For those interested in the nitty-gritty details of how the legal requirements under which the Forest Service must operate and interface with the work of Georgia ForestWatch and outcomes on the ground, one need look no further than the document trail below. Nobody said oversight of the work and processes of a federal land management agency would be simple.

Watergauge, Restoration & Management Proposal Complexity

Watergauge Pine Thinning

The district has completed the Watergauge pine thinning. Overall, the contractors did a good job extracting the pine trees. One thing we did notice is the amount of compaction from the rubber tired feller-bunchers used to remove the trees. Soil compaction (even if duff layer is intact) alters soil water infiltration rates and can discourage germination of new trees. We’ll have to revisit this location later to find out more about longer term impacts of this activity. The access roads were all in good repair.

The management guidance for the managers of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest comes from the Land & Resource Management Plan (LRMP) document.

Forest Restoration is a key directive of the present LRMP. Since forest and ecosystem “restoration” is a relatively new school of thought, there has been much debate over the definition of restoration and the management associated it. The Watergauge proposal is one such “restoration” project that was a recent topic of debate and misunderstanding between the Forest Service and Georgia ForestWatch, primarily due to the experimental nature of the project and the Forest Service’s attempt to exempt the project from the appropriate environmental analysis required by NEPA.

Need for Environmental Assessment in Watergauge project reaffirmed by agreement between the Forest Service, GFW, and SELC

A project scoping Decision exempting the Watergauge project proposal from detailed environmental review had Georgia ForestWatch in immediate consultation with our legal partner Southern Environmental Law Center for clarification on the legality and potential need for appealing this large, complex project. The Forest Service had proposed a cornucopia of work under the Watergauge proposal which included 1000 acres of prescribed burning, 10 acres of bog restoration and 508 acres of open oak-pine woodland creation. The proposal also contained some non-controversial work such as treatment of Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, Non-native Invasive Plant Species, Soil and Water Restoration Treatments and barricading illegal ATV trails. The size, complexity and experimental nature of the project convinced us that parts of the project required the more detailed analysis of an Environmental Assessment as opposed to using a Categorical Exclusion, which is normally reserved for smaller, non-controversial projects that need less rigor. With the legal expertise of the Southern Environmental Law Center we appealed the Forest Service’s Decision. In an ensuing meeting, an equitable settlement was created, thanks to collaboration between the Forest Service, GFW, and SELC. By following the document trail you can experience the legal and ecological complexity of our work as we strive to have the agency follow the letter of the law. This project and process are far from complete so stay tuned for next steps as the project is implemented.

The links below provide detail on the progression of this process.

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