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Georgia ForestWatch: Protecting, Preserving, Restoring

Excerpted from “Our History: 20 Years of Watching Your Forests by Bob Kibler and Charles Seabrook”

For almost 30 years, Georgia ForestWatch has been protecting, preserving, and restoring the Chattahoochee and Oconee National Forests. In essence, ForestWatch was spawned as part of a legal settlement between the U.S. Forest Service and seven conservation organizations that challenged the agency’s first-ever comprehensive management plan for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests.

The conservation organizations included the Georgia Conservancy, Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Friends of the Mountains, Georgia Botanical Society, Atlanta Audubon Society, and the Georgia Council of Trout Unlimited. The acknowledged leader was Chuck McGrady, an Atlanta-based lawyer and conservation chair for the Sierra Club’s Georgia Chapter.

Out of all of the bedrock environmental laws that were passed in the 1970’s, the one that would be of paramount importance to the future of then-unborn Georgia ForestWatch was the National Forest Management Act of 1976.

The Forest Service is charged to manage national forests for multiple uses – watershed protection, fish and wildlife habitat, scenic beauty, wilderness protection, recreation and limited logging. The conservation organizations eagerly awaited the first “Land and Resource Management Plan” that would be submitted by the Forest Service with absolutely no public input.

In October 1984, the groups got their peek when the Forest Service released their first plan – a ponderous, 750-page document – for public perusal. The public would have 60 days to comment. This was a historic step because it was a move away from a timber-first policy and a nudge towards public forestry.

In their comments, organization members stated that not enough forest land was being set aside for roadless and wilderness areas. The plan favored the timber industry because it left more than 70 percent of the Chattahoochee and 90 percent of the Oconee open to logging. It proposed removing 81 million board feet of timber per year and even increasing logging levels over the next several years.

A key strategy towards achieving the conservationists’ goals would be to draw public attention to the natural beauty of the north Georgia highlands and emphasize the need to preserve still-intact wild places threatened by eventual logging. It became a waiting game to see if the agency would absorb the comments and re-work its management plan.

The public had come through. The Forest Service had received more than 2,000 written public comments on the management plan.

In September 1985, the Forest Service released the eagerly awaited “final draft” of its first-ever management plan for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests. However the comments had mattered little as the document had not changed.

The conservation organizations submitted a formal notice of appeal – a procedure required by federal law before filing an appeal itself – that the coalition submitted to the Forest Service was the first of its kind in the nation.

To the utter surprise of everyone, even before the appeal had started winding its way through Washington bureaucracy, the Forest Service sent word that it wanted to negotiate a settlement.

It was learned later that the agency’s unexpected move came about primarily because it, too, was venturing into unknown terrain. The agency was wary that the appeal might open up a can of worms and set a national precedent that would jeopardize management plans for other national forests. The Forest Service began to meet annually with organization members to disclose specific plans.

“Actually, the Forest Service was a big help,” said Jim Sullivan, who represented Friends of the Mountains and was ForestWatch’s first “district leader” for the Chattooga Ranger District. “They really helped us out during the first four or five sessions, explaining the laws under which they operated.”

Now, a structure had to be set up by which the groups would carry out their watchdog activities. The participants usually arrived on Friday night and stayed through Sunday afternoon, with a hike in the forest usually part of the weekend agenda. Thus, Georgia ForestWatch was born standing up.

Another important volunteer group – the district leaders’ spouses – did much of the cooking. Sue Murphy, wife of Sullivan, is still fondly remembered for her “mountains” of tasty spaghetti. Traipsing day after day through the mountainous forests of the Chattahoochee can produce some hungry bellies.

Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, many poorly planned timber sales on the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests were amended or reduced due to the efforts of our volunteers. The same level of involvement plus teamwork with conservation partners and legal counsel eventually led to a lawsuit (Sierra vs. Martin), which ultimately halted the Forest Service’s devastating commercial timber harvest program in 1996 for the remaining seven years of the 1986 Forest Management Plan.

Georgia ForestWatch is devoted to the protection, preservation, and restoration of these beautiful forests we all flock to north Georgia to enjoy. We have been watching our forests for decades and will continue to do so long into the future.

Click here for detailed account of the history of Georgia ForestWatch.

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