Around the Forest : By Jess Riddle, Executive Director
Lawsuits: Several environmental organizations brought suit against the Council of Environmental Quality’s (CEQ) new National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations, which reduce government accountability and place new constraints on environmental reviews. The merits of that case were recently presented in court. Encouragingly, the Biden administration has also stated it is reconsidering CEQ’s rule changes. Georgia ForestWatch is a plaintiff in a related suit challenging the Forest Service’s new NEPA regulations, but the merits of that case will not be presented in court until August at the earliest.
Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest (CONF) Forest Planning: The Forest Service’s revised schedule indicates forest planning for the CONF will begin in 2026. Forest planning is a public process in which each national forest develops a strategic plan that sets goals and restrictions for management activities, zones the forest into units emphasizing different uses, and guides every Forest Service project. Plans are designed to last 10-15 years, but the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest Plan was last revised in 2004.
Blue Ridge Ranger District
Toccoa Salvage Project: This project harvested timber from white pine stands along the Toccoa River that were heavily impacted by a tornado. ForestWatch supported the part of the project that could be completed from an existing road, but opposed the part that would require new ground disturbance. As feared, harvesting the latter area proposed a high density of skid trails. Mitigating that impact somewhat, the logger stayed off of the steeper slopes and spent $1,000 on seed to revegetate the skid trails. The Forest Service justified the project as reducing pest and wildfire risk, but the history of the region indicates the project is very unlikely to make an impact on those issues.
Lake Winfield Scott Recreation Area Improvement Project: The Forest Service is planning major renovations to all the recreation infrastructure at Lake Winfield Scott. We do not anticipate any major issues with this project, but have submitted brief comments.
Illegal trails: The most extensive network weaves through the headwaters of the Toccoa River for tens of miles. Used by dirt bikes and mountain bikes, the trails run straight up and down steep slopes reaching 65% grades. These illegal trails destroy the plant and animal habitat in their path and cause extensive erosion. Forest Service law enforcement is doing what they can, but they need help. If you would like to be part of the solution, join our Clean Mountain Streams Campaign.
Conasauga Ranger District
Fightingtown Creek Project: The loggers have removed their equipment from the site after cutting less than half of the stands. It is unclear if this is a temporary pause or if the logger is abandoning the project. ForestWatch monitoring of this project has uncovered poor construction of logging roads and rutting from the use of heavy equipment during wet periods, and the Forest Service has imposed temporary shut-downs for soil protection.
Storey Mill Creek Project: The Conasauga Ranger District issued their draft decision for this longleaf pine and woodland restoration project. Frustratingly, this project includes plans to restore longleaf pine on landscape positions (ridgetops) where the species did not historically occur and generally uses a plantation style approach—planting a single pine species in rows. In response to our comments, the Forest Service agreed to experiment with a more uneven planting arrangement and strengthened their commitments to follow the Forest Plan standard for the amount of early successional habitat present at any one time. These changes should increase diversity and protect mature forests. At the urging of ForestWatch and the Southern Environmental Law Center, the District abandoned their original plans to complete this project using the minimal documentation of a categorical exclusion, and instead provided more complete environmental impact analysis in an environmental assessment, typical of logging projects of this scale. The woodland restoration treatments that we supported for being well sited and well planned are retained in the final project.