Brawley Mountain Assessment Outing

Georgia ForestWatch Reduces Scope of Forest Destruction on Brawley Mountain

Saving the Golden Winged Warbler does not have to cause large-scale destruction of older hardwood forest by thinning, burning and herbicide suppression of regrowth as in itially proposed in 2005. ForestWatch’s response led to better monitoring and changes in the project that protect older oak forest.

Where We Made a Difference

In December of 2005, the United States Forest Service announced a plan to heavily harvest timber across 725 acres of forest on Brawley Mountain, a long east-west running ridgeline approaching 3,000 feet in elevation located in the Chattahoochee National Forest, northeast of Ellijay in Fannin County, Georgia. Once the forest had been cut and harvested, the Forest Service proposed to burn the area repeatedly and kill resprouting hardwoods with herbicides.

The stated purpose of this activity was to create an open “woodland” dominated by grasses to increase habitat for the Golden Winged Warbler (GWW), a neotropical migrant. This species winters in southern Central America and northern South America and breeds in North America. Surveys indicated that its population was declining in Georgia, and the Forest Service proposal asserted that the last remaining population in the state was to be found on Brawley Mountain. Georgia ForestWatch studied the proposal, made several site visits and responded to this proposal with 43 pages of footnoted comments, prepared in cooperation with environmental attorney Sarah Francisco of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Our initial comments made a number of points, among them that the GWW was expanding its range in the north and was still breeding at high elevations barely 40 miles north in North Carolina. The Forest Service’s own predictions concerning global warming indicated the species would move north and higher. The future of the GWW in Georgia seemed bleak, no matter what efforts were made to create habitat.

Our comments also pointed out that the Brawley Mountain project area contained several stands of nearly old-growth forest. These stands of mature mast-producing oaks were in short supply in the area, because almost 40 percent had been clearcut in the past, resulting in little acorn production and few young oaks. The Forest Service’s own studies showed that clearcuts dramatically reduced the oak component of the regenerating forest. It is well documented that hard mast (acorn) production is critical for wildlife health.

The Forest Service styled this project as woodland restoration. Georgia ForestWatch believes and asserted that an open, grassy woodland could never have existed at Brawley, with its 60 inches of rain per annum and species such as white oak, ash, and red oak, indicators of fertile, productive soil.

From the beginning, Georgia ForestWatch recommended that this project be viewed as experimental and be implemented on a much smaller scale, sparing the mature forest on a western ridge. If monitoring indicated that the project was successful in increasing GWW numbers, then the project area could be increased.

From February of 2006 until the spring of 2009, Georgia ForestWatch participated in several field trips to the Brawley area with the Forest Service, during which we stated our case and supported our positions. In April of 2009, Sarah Francisco arranged for several independent scientists from the University of the South to visit the site for another meeting with the Forest Service and representatives of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. In the course of a contentious meeting, these scientists came to the same conclusion we had reached—an open grassy woodland never existed on this site.

This long process was finally concluded during a meeting between George Bain, the forest supervisor; Sarah Francisco; Wayne Jenkins, the director of ForestWatch; and Jim Walker, the district leader for the Blue Ridge District. The final decision shrunk the project from 725 acres to around 300 acres and spared the mature oak forest that Georgia ForestWatch had identified.

In addition, the Forest Service agreed to no longer label the project as “woodland restoration” and improved the monitoring needed to understand any success or failure for this experimental forest management.

Despite these adjustments, the implemented treatments for the single species Golden Winged Warbler will devastate hundreds of acres and create powerful scenic impacts in an area where the Land and Resource Management Plan directs managers to manage for high recreational use and scenic values.

This partial victory is a testament to the effectiveness of Georgia ForestWatch and a tribute to its tenacity. Without the presence of Georgia ForestWatch, nearly old-growth forest would have been cut, burned and treated with herbicides, and a harmful precedent would have been set for arbitrary “woodland restoration” on an inappropriate site. We will see if the implemented management achieves its goal.

Want more info?

Forest News Fall 2014: “Chipping the Forest Away”

Forest News Fall 2013: “An Update on the Brawley Mountain Project”

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