Twenty years of struggle over Warwoman
by David Govus : District Leader
In 1995, the Forest Service announced a plan to essentially clear-cut nearly 1,000 acres in the steep upper Warwoman Creek Watershed in Rabun County. This plan was appealed by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) on behalf of the Chattooga Conservancy, The Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and Georgia ForestWatch. These groups were particularly concerned about two
provisions in the plan: the proposed logging would be centered on Tuckaluge Creek, a tributary of Warwoman Creek containing a population of native brook trout, and a permanent road would be built up the west side of Tuckaluge Creek. As a result of the appeal, the Forest Service scaled back its logging plan and abandoned the road building scheme. Although the appeal was settled, the Forest Service’s interest in ‘vegetation management’ in the Tuckaluge Watershed remained.
In the early 2000s, during the Chattahoochee National Forest planning process, Georgia ForestWatch and partners proposed a formal roadless area that would protect the western side of Tuckaluge Creek. To be named the Windy Gap Roadless Area, it would encompass the western side of the creek and stretch over the Tennessee Valley Divide to the headwaters of Darnell Creek. The Forest Service rejected this idea, and a subsequent appeal to the Chief of the Forest Service by SELC in 2004 also was denied.
In 2005, the Forest Service released an environmental assessment of the upper Warwoman watershed, which to no one’s surprise called for more logging. This time the plan would harvest mature white pines and restore oaks – an improvement over the logging of mature oaks in previous decades but troubling still because the Forest Service has never demonstrated the ability to restore oaks in areas occupied by white pines. Further, logging in this area of substandard roads and steep slopes would guarantee a significant amount of silt deposited in the watershed.
In June of 2006, the Forest Service announced the Buck Branch and Dan Gap Oak Restoration project. This plan contemplated extensive logging of white pine in the upper Warwoman/Tuckaluge watershed but did not address the road/silt problem. In commenting on the proposal, Georgia ForestWatch, the Chattooga Conservancy and SELC pointed out that until the road problems were resolved more logging was a bad idea. The comments included quotes by Dr. John Hewlett, retired head of the Southern Research Station at the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory who noted the numerous problems with the existing road system, particularly with the Tuckaluge Creek Road. The Forest Service dropped this project and began formulating yet another Warwoman proposal.
In 2011, the Chattooga River Ranger District announced the Warwoman Vegetative Management Project. During the next two years the district held – and Georgia ForestWatch attended – a number of public meetings and field trips to elicit public opinion. In January 2013, the Forest Service formally outlined the project and asked for comments. After all these years, this project very closely resembled the original 1995 project, including a proposal to reconstruct two miles of road and build a one mile extension up the west side of Tuckaluge Creek. Georgia ForestWatch and SELC submitted extensive comments strongly opposing many features of this project, particularly this new three-mile road.
The comments pointed out that the Forest Service’s own environmental analysis stated this three-mile road would cost a million dollars and would significantly increase the silt load into Tuckaluge Creek for a decade. The reason given for this expensive and damaging new road was that the existing road on the north side of the Creek had a 200-yard steep section, which the Forest Service could not maintain properly. Georgia ForestWatch argued that the Forest Service had made only half-hearted efforts to repair this short section of road, and that there were a number of solutions, including paving, that would cost only a fraction of what the new road would cost. In a meeting with the Forest Service engineering staff in the supervisor’s office, Georgia ForestWatch discovered that the most important reason for the new road was that the existing Tuckaluge Road is too steep and the curves too sharp to allow passage of tractor trailers. Many logging contractors who use only tractor trailers would not bid on future timber cutting projects in the Tuckaluge watershed with the existing road system.
In April of this year, Georgia ForestWatch and SELC discussed this latest plan for the upper Warwoman watershed with Chattooga River District Ranger Ed Hunter and his staff. Among other comments, SELC’s Patrick Hunter reminded them that the new three-mile road would serve not only as a timber harvesting road but also as recreational access for the Tuckaluge watershed, and as such, with six stream crossings, would require multiple permits under the Clean Water Act.
In June, Ranger Ed Hunter announced a decision on the latest – and hopefully final – plan for the Upper Warwoman Watershed. The new three-mile road has been dropped. Logging has been reduced from 1,200 to 1,000 acres, with 330 acres cut and leave (noncommercial), which is much less destructive than ground-based commercial logging. The majority of commercial logging is in the less sensitive Buck Creek watershed, and at Georgia ForestWatch’s urging, 65 acres of old growth forest has been spared. As originally proposed, the project will permanently gate three miles of road and decommission one mile of road – a small but positive step in dealing with a declining road maintenance budget and massively deteriorating road system. After a 20-year struggle, the latest plan for the Upper Warwoman Watershed is a major victory for Georgia ForestWatch, the Chattooga Conservancy, the Southern Environmental Law Center, and the Sierra Club.
November 5th, 2015: Upper Warwoman Vegetation Management Decision Notice