by Jess Riddle : Executive Director
On December 4th, the public filled every seat, and uniformed Forest Service staff lined the walls at the Clayton Foothills Landscape Project meeting. The Forest Service presented for half an hour about how wonderful the Foothills Collaboration has been and outlined challenges the agency is facing. They did not talk about how the project would authorize over 60,000 acres of commercial timber harvests and over 70,000 acres of herbicide application. They acknowledged that the project was taking a new approach by describing the kinds of places where particular management treatments would be done rather than identifying specific locations, but they did not mention that the project has no end date. Since then, they have claimed that they have provided site-specific information, even though they have not identified locations where they will or won’t log, have not shown where new prescribed fire units would be, and have not specified which trail segments would be rerouted.
Attendees we spoke to after the meeting were not impressed, and official comments on the project were over 90% critical. Over 2,000 dissatisfied citizens registered their concerns, and they were joined by a variety of environmental and recreation organizations. Of course, project reviews are not votes, which is why Georgia ForestWatch joined with the Southern Environmental Law Center, Georgia Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Chattooga Conservancy to submit over 200 pages of comments detailing ways to improve vegetation treatments, gaps in the analysis, and legal shortcomings in the project design.
One of the biggest issues remains the lack of information on the actual locations where this project would take action. At the public meetings last December, the Forest Service answered that District Rangers would probably hold annual public meetings to keep people up to date on the project. While some District Rangers have a track record of transparency and listening to the public, the answer came across noncommittal and lacking in thoughtful planning, even though over a year ago we had clearly communicated this was a major concern for us. The decision to hold the comment period over the holidays and the refusal to extend it even two weeks undermined the Agency’s claim that it is committed to keeping the public involved.
Since commenting, we have had discussions with Forest Service staff, and many of the specialists are reading comments carefully and trying to marry suggestions with Forest Service goals and constraints. Reactions from those higher up in the Forest Service and responsible for the overall approach have been more mixed. Some have indicated a willingness to listen while others have publicly sought to delegitimize concerns and public opinion. In fact, the Forest Service has indicated it will release additional publications to “clarify” plans, as if frustrations with the project were merely misunderstandings. We are not sitting idle, either.
We are continuing to meet with the Forest Service, and, with our partners, we have submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for documents pertaining to timber production goals, condition based management, monitoring, and temporary roads. Foothills can still be put on the right track. The first step would be for the Forest Service to complete an Environmental Impact Statement, a thorough analysis of effects that Federal agencies are required to prepare whenever a project will have significant impact (which Foothills clearly will). The other critical step is to provide site-specific information before decisions are made, so that the public can provide information on whether a particular ridge is appropriate for restoring woodland or what the tradeoff would actually be if a particular trail were used as a firebreak.