By : Jess Riddle, Executive Director
If each Forest Service project worked exactly as described, some of ForestWatch’s concerns would simply go away. Forests are complicated though, and the future is always less predictable than it seems. So as I walked with a group of ForestWatchers down a gated road into the East Nottely Project, we weren’t sure what we would find.
The Blue Ridge Ranger District approved the project late 2011, planning many different actions including: 1,071 acres of forest thinning, 25 acres of more intense regeneration harvests, prescribed burning the entire 1,839-acre project area, planting grasses in wildlife openings, controlling invasive species, and closing and rehabilitating 2.5 miles of unauthorized roads. The District promised these actions would “contribute to improving forest health, restoring and maintaining native pine-hardwood forest and oak and oak-pine forest, and improving wildlife habitat, while controlling non-native plant species, improving watershed conditions, and managing forest visitor access.” Georgia ForestWatch expressed concern that the fires would kill desirable species back to the ground and that that wildlife openings would quickly revert to undesirable species. Our greatest concern focused on the 728 acres of thinnings where whole trees would be removed, including branches and buds, which would rob the forests of needed nutrients and organic matter and damage long-term forest productivity and health.
The road we walked followed a broad ridge through a mix of young stands, where the Forest Service had not done any recent work, and more mature stands that the Forest Service had opened up by taking out about half the trees, leaving mostly oaks and cutting mostly white pines. The skid trails, where machines hauled trees through the woods to log landings, consistently showed very little soil damage with 100% leaf litter cover and abundant pine seedlings. The log landings themselves were typical, flat areas denuded of upper soil horizons and covered with Virginia pine seedlings, one of the few trees that establishes well on such degraded soil.
Tree seedlings sprouted up in logged areas. A few oaks, which the Forest Service is trying to regenerate, reached head high, but they were far outnumbered by Virginia pine and especially white pine, two species the Forest Service is trying to keep from reproducing. The pines could be killed by prescribed fire, but after seven years the Forest Service still has not burned the part we visited. The younger stands where they had planned whole tree harvests have not been touched, making ForestWatch’s greatest concerns moot.
The unauthorized road we checked next ran down to the lake shore. The guard-rail segment installed across the entrance blocks cars, but ATVs had found a way around. We saw no evidence of “rehabilitation” of the road. The nearby wildlife opening that had been covered in kudzu is now vine-free. Instead of the grasses described in the project plans, we found a thicket of blackberries, which is better wildlife habitat in some ways.
At our last stop, homes nestled in the woods, and across the black-top, a wide-open slope dipped gently away. The Forest Service had cut about 90% of the trees, as promised, leaving mostly oaks. The subsequent site-prep burn, a hot fire intended to control competing vegetation to allow planted seedlings to grow freely, had killed almost all the trees spared in the harvest. Red-headed woodpeckers flew between snags, passing over blackberries and goldenrods but not planted shortleaf pine. The Forest Service still plans to plant pines. It is hard to see the cut and burned tract as “improving forest health.”
Overall, the project appears to be on a path towards neither the Forest Service’s vision nor our fears. On the positive side, the timber harvests we saw had low impact on soils, and the road closures and invasive species control help native species. On the negative side, the site-prep burn killed most trees retained in the regeneration harvest, and non-logging actions generally not been implemented. We also noticed several post oaks and a few blackjack oaks, species uncommon on the Forest that suggest the project’s ridgetops were suitable for woodland restoration, a Forest Service goal. The Blue Ridge Ranger District has had difficulty choosing appropriate sites for woodland restoration, so this project seems like a missed opportunity. Going forward, the current state of follow-through on this project raises serious questions about whether the Forest Service is capable of implementing a far larger project, which is what they are proposing with the Foothills Landscape Project.