By Marie Dunkle
In January 2013 when I first interviewed Ed Hunter for this newsletter, he was fairly new as the U. S. Forest Service (USFS) Chattooga River District Ranger, and I was still in learning mode as the Georgia ForestWatch (GAFW) Chattooga River District Leader. We sat near Stonewall Falls, and I learned that Ed grew up in Louisiana and was recruited to attend Tuskegee University on a football scholarship. But when his dream was sidelined due to health issues, the USFS stepped in with another scholarship offer to try Forestry studies. After an internship in a Western forest, Ed discovered his passion for trees, the land, and rivers. He has worked for the USFS since 2002.
In 2016, Hunter was promoted to Chief of Staff for the Agency’s Regional Forester in Atlanta, but he returned to the CONF last year as Forest Supervisor. For this interview we sat on the wide banks of the Chattahoochee River near Lake Lanier Olympic Park to discuss changes and risks to the CONF, Agency resources, Forest planning strategies, Foothills and the ForestWatch relationship with the Forest Service.
(D) What do you see as the major changes and risks for the CONF?
(H) Seven years ago the Agency had plans to ramp up its pace and scale of activities, but funding and capacity challenges impacted that, and the Southern Pine Beetle (SPB) outbreak here on the Chattahoochee-Oconee forced us to be more reactive rather than proactive. The Secretary also directed that we focus more on “customer service”—customers being those communities that the Forest surrounds—and see ourselves through those rural community perspectives.
Then our recreation program focus was also forced to change. We were working closely with partner organizations on recreation needs and resources, but efforts like the Co-Trails program were halted due to the COVID pandemic. We are just now trying to re-engage and re-unite.
The biggest change I have seen is the change in demographics of neighboring and surrounding communities. There is an influx of people from Atlanta visiting the Forest and even the local rural communities are changing and these new users are not as connected to the Forest as with past or traditional users. Folks want to get out in nature but don’t understand the risks they pose to the forest and other users. Terrestrial and aquatic wildlife are more impacted as a result of dispersed recreation activities and a backlog of recurring and deferred road maintenance. And, the quality of our water, even in Atlanta, is impacted in part by activity on Forest roads that are more likely to cause pollution, in the form of sedimentation, to streams. We have got to protect these resources.
Roads are a huge challenge. With limited resources we must take a more holistic approach and focus our efforts one watershed at a time with the help of county and state partners. Some Forest roads need to be put to bed, then we can use drainage structures and other management techniques to deal with on-going sediment problems.
In recent years we’ve seen impacts of climate change on the National Forest. In the West that has meant catastrophic fires, but in the CONF we have seen very damaging rain and that’s where our emphasis needs to be.
(D) FS resources for dealing with these problems are reduced. How will you get the jobs done?
(H) Discretionary funding is decreasing – and although locally we have some budget latitude and power, there are always trade-offs to consider. Our strategy for making the most of the Forest Service (FS) resources we have is to practice management at the appropriate scale. This might mean dealing with a SPB outbreak with action on 20,000 acres or providing connectivity on enough acres to let the Ruffed Grouse population thrive. The Foothills Landscape Project will be an example of planning at appropriate scale and implementing plans efficiently.
The FS approach with Foothills has changed in the past year. We looked hard at project comments from GAFW and others and realized that we were not on track to meet our requirements under NEPA. Now we are taking a more programmatic approach and believe that Foothills will be a great success because we have recommitted to bringing in diverse stakeholders and listening to them. Ecosystem health and improved water quality will be the focus for the landscape changes that Foothills will bring about, and Foothills will serve as the basis for working with communities.
We also need to be more proactive with partners and the public. That means visibility of our employees and education of the public about appropriate uses of the Forest and our services.
(D) The FS and GAFW have definitely had their differences. How can we work effectively with the Agency?
(H) We both want ecosystem health, but sometimes we see things differently. Take old-growth forest for example. It is vital for habitat, water and soil quality, and is a legacy that helps us all to connect with nature. But the Forest Service’s definition of “old-growth” may differ from yours.
I am excited about GAFW’s mission and encourage your members to show up and voice concerns. Your visibility with the public and bringing our attention to issues in the Forest helps. We are listening to you.