September 2021. A recent settlement brought to an end a lawsuit filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of Georgia ForestWatch and the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club concerning controversial timber cutting plans in the Cooper Creek project. The lawsuit was filed in the spring of 2019. (Georgia ForestWatch, et. al. v. the USFS). Under the terms of the settlement, the Forest Service agreed to cancel approximately 285 acres of commercial timber harvests in Management Prescription 7.E.1 which is designated by the Forest Service as “unsuitable” for timber production. In addition the Forest Service agreed to pay $30,000 to the Southern Environmental Law Center towards legal expenses.
The Land and Resource Management Plan for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest divides the 867,000 acres of the forest into different zones. These zones are referred to as “management prescriptions” and each is accompanied by a list of what should and should not happen in each area. The list of should and should nots is itself developed based on the management emphasis of each prescription—e.g., recreation, timber, conservation, etc. Every prescription is designated as either “suitable” or “unsuitable” for commercial timber production. Management Prescription 7.E.1 areas have as their focus recreation, with timber production prohibited (i.e., “unsuitable”) unless such harvests are necessary to accomplish a crucial site-specific goal. As part of its lawsuit, ForestWatch argued that the Forest Service had not made this showing sufficient to justify commercial logging in Prescription 7.E.1.
The Cooper Creek project planning began in 2012 and was formally announced in the spring of 2014. The project originally contemplated 2,315 acres of commercial timber harvest of which 253 acres were clear cuts and the rest involved removing half the trees. 11,000 acres of burning were planned as was the liberal use of herbicides. Georgia ForestWatch surveyors made numerous visits, examined all the areas scheduled to be cut and wrote extensive comments. Perhaps the most inappropriate areas discovered that were scheduled for clear cutting, were 2 blocks of old growth Northern Red Oaks on steep ground high up on the northern face of Duncan Ridge. Pictured here with one of the trees is Jim Walker, one of the most active investigators of the project.
In January of 2018 the Forest Service announced its decision to proceed with a scaled down version of the project. The blocks of old growth Northern Red Oaks had been eliminated from the planned harvest and the total acreage of commercial harvest was reduced to 1397 acres. With the settlement, the Forest Service agreed to abandon commercial harvests in Prescription 7.E.1, reducing the acres to be cut (as previously noted) by another 285 acres, including 98 acres of planned clear cuts. In the future, we hope the Forest Service will only propose timber production in areas designated in its Land and Resource Management Plan as “unsuitable” for that activity if the harvest meets the limited exceptions allowing that activity.
The efforts of Georgia ForestWatch’s staff and volunteers to reduce the Cooper Creek project’s impacts to our soil, water, and forest resources have been successful and we are hopeful that future monitoring of the project as it is implemented on the ground will reduce these impacts even further. This big win for the environment could not have been possible without the support of our legal partner, the Southern Environmental Law Center. They deserve a hearty thanks from all who love our public forest. Great work to all involved!