Around the Forest: Fall 2020

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By: Jess Riddle, Executive Director

National Issues

Forest management is being pushed back towards the bad old days of logging for the sake of logging.  Over the last 30 years forest management has significantly improved as people saw the damage caused by forest exploitation and demanded greater ecological consideration.  Some timber beasts are still around, but now they work with and often report to colleagues who have a broader perspective and want to help ecosystems for the sake of the ecosystem.

People who don’t like that shift now occupy powerful positions, and they are doing everything they can to speed the conversion of our public lands and forests into commodities without regard for the myriad other benefits natural areas provide.  Case in point: In June, Secretary of Agriculture Sunny Purdue issued a memo to the Chief of the Forest Service directing her to “increase the productivity of national forests and grassland” and “expedit[e] environmental reviews.”  Among several directives, the Forest Service is to “increase America’s energy dominance,” “reduce regulatory burdens to promote active management,” and “improve customer service by modernizing and simplifying forest products permitting and the Forest Service land exchange process.”  These were not mere suggestions.  In August, Purdue bypassed the Chief and wrote directly to Regional Foresters demanding progress reports and work plans for further activity.

At the same time, regulations that protect against ill-conceived products are being gutted.  Whenever a federal agency takes a major action—from building a dam to permitting a pipeline to logging a forest—the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires them to analyze potential environmental impacts, disclose plans to the public and consider feedback, and consider alternatives.  The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which makes the regulations for how all agencies implement NEPA, has just changed the rules in the name of improving efficiency, but has paved the way for development (see our April article for more on CEQ and NEPA changes).

For instance, the new rules allow applicants to help prepare environmental reviews, whether they are a fracking company wanting to drill a well or a county planning to lease public land for a new target range.  The changes also remove consideration of “cumulative effects,” such as previous Forest Service logging in the same watershed or how a project would contribute to climate change.  New page and time limits for preparing environmental reviews will produce other gaps in analysis of environmental impacts, which is particularly frustrating because the Forest Service already has a tendency to oversimplify complex ecological issues.

The Southern Environmental Law Center is representing several environmental organizations challenging the rule changes.  The new rules go into effect September 14th unless the courts issue a stay, in which case they would only be implemented if the government wins the case.

The Forest Service must follow CEQ NEPA rules, but the agency also has its own directives for implementing NEPA.  Last June, the Forest Service proposed updates to its rules that would have reduced public participation and environmental review.  The Forest Service’s revisions could be released any day, but conflicts with the new CEQ rules may delay their release.

A national bright spot: The recently passed Great American Outdoors Act will supply funds for overdue work in national parks and national forests.  It also permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which allows the federal government to purchase land from willing sellers.  Georgia ForestWatch has long supported greater funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest 

COVID-19 forced the Forest Service to close campgrounds, many trails, and other recreation facilities, but they have now reopened all of them.  Trails have seen holiday-weekend-size crowds every weekend.  Many of these visitors are new or infrequent forest users who haven’t had a chance yet to learn how to enjoy the forest safely and responsibly.  They may present challenges for the Forest Service, but they deserve warm welcomes and good examples from veteran forest users.

On the other hand, most Forest Service offices are nearly deserted with staff either working from home or going directly to the field.  The Forest Service has still been working though.  Recreational facilities closures were an opportunity to complete some backlogged maintenance, like painting fences and repairing picnic tables.  Some new projects have been slowed by closure of State Historic Preservation Organization and Tribal offices that the Forest Service is required to consult.  A combination of low mill capacity due to COVID-19, a weak timber market, and wet weather has slowed timber harvests for approved projects.

As the Forest Service developed new processes to deal with COVID-19, they also worked to refine their process for land sales (see Fall 2019 article).  They have committed to go through the NEPA process for each of the 30 tracts they consider selling.  So far, only Fannin and Rabun Counties have moved towards actually selling parcels.  Rabun County is formally supporting the sale of two out of seven potential tracts, including a nearly 800-acre parcel that is contiguous with other Forest Service land.  ForestWatch is continuing to survey the tracts, and we have visited almost all of them.

The FS has also focused on the Foothills Landscape Project, processing the over 2,000 comments they received in January in response to the draft Environmental Assessment.  They have not yet indicated any changes they will make to the project in response.  The courts have recently thrown out the Prince of Wales project in Alaska, which took a very similar approach to Foothills by describing general activities the Forest Service planned to complete but failing to identify the actual locations.

How the Forest Service proceeds with Foothills will depend in part on who leads the Forest Service in Georgia.  The Forest Service has been operating with an Acting Supervisor for several months, but they expect to fill the Forest Supervisor position any week now.

Blue Ridge Ranger District

The District is moving ahead with the Toccoa Salvage project, which involves harvesting fallen and broken trees (salvage logging) in an area between Suches and Blue Ridge that was hit by a tornado.  Disappointingly, they are including an area that will require bulldozing in “temporary” roads and scraping off log landings in order to haul out timber.  The District justifies the project as reducing insect attack and wildfire risk, but the chance the project will actually have any influence on either of those issues is slim.  The District’s next project will likely be thinning a few dozen acres of upland white pine forest in the Rock Creek watershed west of Suches.  ForestWatch is continuing to monitor the construction of a target range on FS land near Brasstown Bald to ensure the environmental safety plan is strictly adhered to.

Chattooga River Ranger District

The Chattooga River is beautiful, provides habitat not found elsewhere on the Forest, and is a major economic resource for local communities, but it also attracts some of the least responsible forest users.  The District is working on ways to better manage use at some popular access points so that people can continue to enjoy the river for generations to come.  The District has also focused on treating invasive species this summer, especially in campgrounds and at a potential site for native river cane restoration in the Foothills Landscape Project.  Developing new prescribed burn plans, rare plant and forest health projects, and working on Foothills have also been priorities this summer.

Conasauga Ranger District

The District recently approved the Johns Mountain WMA Proposal, which will establish new wildlife openings in a valley southeast of Villanow.  Georgia ForestWatch usually opposes wildlife openings because the lawn-like openings in the woods are artificial and benefit many fewer species than natural habitats.  This project, however, minimizes damage by using already disturbed habitats (log landings and pine plantations) to create the openings, and will allow parts of them to grow up for a year or two between maintenance, which will better mimic natural habitats.  The openings will still be simpler than natural habitats and the access roads will have negative impacts, but this project is a clear improvement over past similar projects.  The District is currently reviewing plans for a new gravel parking area for the Pinhoti Trail at Mulberry Gap, and continuing timber harvests for the Sumac Creek (approved 2013) and Fightingtown Creek (approved 2018) Projects.