Around the Forest : By Jess Riddle
Foothills Landscape Project: The Forest Service (FS) took the highly unusual step of issuing a revised Environmental Assessment for the 157,000-acre Foothills Landscape Project. The project’s original review in late 2019 prompted over 2,000 public comments, mostly asking for change.
In response to that outpouring of concern and recognizing the need to restructure how the project would be implemented, the new Environmental Assessment no longer proposes open-ended authorization for logging, prescribed fire, roadwork, etc. throughout the landscape. Instead, the revised Environmental Assessment is programmatic—it analyzes common elements of management actions in the Foothills, but does not authorize specific on-the-ground action. The site-specific authorization will come from separate streamlined Environmental Assessments that will stay within the broader bounds of what is analyzed in the revised Foothills Environmental Assessment. The bottom line is the public will have site-specific information before the Forest Service makes the decision to cut, burn, or apply herbicide to any patch of forest.
This new approach is a major step in the right direction, and addresses major legal issues with the original plan. Unfortunately, the current plans still contemplate managing all aspects of the Foothills with no focus or prioritization. This approach sets stakeholders up for future controversy, and could still allow thousands of acres of logging and other activities in forests that would not benefit from them.
However, there is still a path to focus the project on common ground, activities with broad support of many different interest groups. ForestWatch has been an active participant in a group working to develop a charter for an ongoing Foothills Collaboration. The Collaboration would make recommendations for what should be done as part of the project and what the priorities should be.
This collaboration may not sound like anything new, but from the perspective of stakeholder involvement, the whole Foothills Collaboration has been restarted. Unlike previous versions, the Forest Service is willing to give up significant decision-making power, such as which areas should be prioritized for restoration work. To be effective, the collaboration needs clear goals, procedures, and structure (e.g. consensus vs. majority decision making), which should be developed by September. Ultimately though, a good project will require ongoing public involvement.
Camping Order: The FS is considering a forest-wide order changing the rules for long-term camping. Currently, campers can occupy a campsite for up to 14 days, at which time they must move to a different camping area. Problems sometimes arise when people leave a site for just a short period and then return to the same site for another 14 days. That practice creates a semi-permanent camp in an area without appropriate infrastructure, and that often damages areas such as stream banks. The new order would address that issue by requiring people to vacate the forest for 30 days before camping again. Comments are due August 25th.
Prescribed fire: During the spring burning season, the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest intentionally burned about 52,000 acres, which is exceptionally high for the forest. Weather often prevents ranger districts from burning all the prescribed fire units that they prep, but this year nearly all units were burned. Historically, the FS lit the interiors of larger units (several hundred acres) with helicopters. This year they began using drones for ignition, a trend that is likely to continue given the poor safety record of helicopters on burns.
Blue Ridge Ranger District
Early Successional Habitat Creation Project: The project plans 183 acres of intensive logging along five FS roads, most of them gated. The goal is to create habitat for species that use areas of young forest. While ForestWatch advocates for the use of natural processes (e.g. fire) as opposed to artificial processes (logging), this project is a step in the right direction because all of the logging is restricted to areas that have already been disturbed and the project avoids core forest areas. The plans still raise some issues about proper analysis of impacts and disclosure of information, habitat fragmentation, and spread of invasive species, which we pointed out in our comments.
Union County Target Range: Georgia DNR has approved funding for this project. They will contribute $1.8 million, while Union County will be responsible for the rest of the estimated $2.4 construction costs. Noting some changes from the original plans, ForestWatch sent a letter to the Forest Service asking that they honor all commitments for the project, especially lead control and noise mitigation.
Chattooga River Ranger District
For the first time in many years FS 150 (Darnell Creek Rd) road is more accessible. The Chattooga River District Ranger explained that many factors quickly came together to permit Forest Service staff to begin repairing this road, and he allowed that one of those factors was Georgia ForestWatch’s involvement and persistence. It’s great to know that the Forest Service is listening and that our work with ForestWatch DOES make a difference. -Marie Dunkle
Conasauga Ranger District
The Nature Conservancy secured a grant to allow the Forest Service to complete renovations on Holly Creek Road that will reduce sedimentation. Holly Creek supports several rare species, and the road is the primary threat to water quality. The district is also constructing a new trail around Panther Creek Falls in the Cohutta Wilderness. That section of trail descends a very steep, rocky slope, and had become obscured after the 2016 wildfire in the area.