FAQ: National Forests

Isn’t the National Forest already protected?  Yes and No.  The National Forest is managed under a multiple-use mandate that allows timber harvests, resource extraction, roadbuilding, and recreation, but does not allow private development such as homes or retail stores. While owned by the American public, it is nonetheless subject to being sold, leased, or traded, and such processes are currently underway in the north Georgia mountains.  Areas that are Congressionally designated, such as Wilderness or National Recreation Areas, have a high level of protection.

Is logging just another word for clearcutting? No, clearcutting is one of many different types of logging, and is rarely used on the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest.  Logging methods vary in how many trees they leave behind.  Clearcutting removes all the merchantable trees from a site while other forms of logging, such as thinning and shelterwood harvests, leave behind some mature trees.  Logging methods commonly used on the national forest range from those that leave less than 15% of the canopy and can be mistaken for clearcutting to some that leave most of the canopy and may not be immediately noticeable.

Is all logging bad?  No, logging can be an important tool to restore forests that have been mismanaged historically and which have non-native species that need to be removed in order to restore a native condition.  Logging can also be accomplished that maintains native forest conditions and water quality by removing a small percentage of the trees as opposed to clearcutting all of them.  

Where does the money from Forest Service logging go?  The type of contract determines where the money goes.  For example, revenues from a commercial timber sale can also be deposited into the Knutson-Vandenberg (K-V) Fund.  This fund was established for reforestation and site improvements and has been expanded to include promoting renewable resources and site improvement within the region of the sale. Revenue from a salvage sale of storm or fired damaged timber is deposited into a salvage sale fund to administer other future salvage sales.  Revenue from stewardship contract sales, which are used in restoration activities and other land management goals, can be used to offset the cost of stewardship services.  Revenue above the cost of the stewardship services are deposited in a Stewardship Contracting Fund to go towards the development of other stewardship projects. Historically the Forest Service has lost millions of dollars on timber sales, leading to the term “below cost” timber sales, where timber revenues are not adequate to cover the administration of the sale.  A percentage of money from timber sales has historically been returned to local counties but declines in sales over the last two decades have led to a payment system for counties that is disconnected from the amount of timber sold.

How do I know if the Forest Service will log or spray chemicals next to my property?  Members of the public must call their local Forest Service office and request to be placed on their mailing list for all projects in their respective district.  When you receive notices of projects, you will be allowed to comment and respond during what is called the “scoping” phase of project development.

How do you define old-growth forest?  Scientists have developed dozens of definitions for “old-growth,” but in north Georgia considering forest that has never been logged as old-growth works well.  Most definitions emphasis a lack of human disturbance and note the variability between different forest types.  The Forest Service uses four criteria to identify old-growth forests: lack of human disturbance, the number of old trees per acre, the number of large trees per acre, and the density of the forest.  The thresholds for age, size, and density vary by forest type.

What are invasive species? Invasive species are species that people have introduced from other parts of the world, and that spread and outcompete native species.  An example is princess tree, a native of Asia that has been introduced to the US, and that will invade and dominate a forest after disturbance such as wildfire or logging.  Another example is hemlock woolly adelgid, which is an introduced non-native species from Asia that is killing Hemlock trees.

Why does the Forest Service intentionally start fires?  The Forest Service receives annual funding to perform what are called “prescribed burns.”  These fires are intended to reduce wildfire risk, improve wildlife habitat, and to restore forest health, which has been altered by 80 years of active fire suppression and before that by cultural human fire use.  While prescribed fire is an important and necessary forest management tool, the seasonality, consistency, and frequency of these fires is highly debatable. 

Where can I find big trees in Georgia’s national forests?  Large trees exist in numerous locations, with some of the bigger locations being the most remote.  One easily accessible area is Sosebee Cove near Suches, Georgia.  Another is Murder Creek Research Natural Area near Eatonton, Georgia.  Over 15,000 acres of old growth forest have been documented in north Georgia, the majority of which was discovered by Georgia ForestWatch.  For the more adventurous explorer, the locations of these trees can be seen at https://www.gafw.org/interactive-webmap and/or in Cliff Shaw’s book: Rambling Through Old-Growth Forests Past and Present

Does the Forest Service ever sell national forest land? Yes – there is currently a proposal to sell 30 tracts totaling nearly 4,000 acres scattered across the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest.  This sale is ostensibly to dispose of isolated tracts that are disjunct from nearby unfragmented acreage in order to purchase more ecologically significant tracts elsewhere.  Yet isolation does not mean that these areas are without value as they can and often do have older forests or even rare species.

How can I get involved?  Join Georgia ForestWatch!  You can get volunteer training and help monitor Forest Service projects on the ground both before, during, and after implementation. Georgia Forestwatch has a volunteer District Leader program, and you can sign up to be part of a district volunteer team. And get on the mailing list for Forest Service activities, group hikes, and other events.