Clear cutting is not the same as a natural disturbance—it is forest destruction pure and simple. Chattahoochee National Forest clear cutting rose from 13,000 acres in the 1960s to 36,500 acres in the 1980s, ultimately consuming nearly 100,000 acres of forest. To cut the trees, the Forest Service built hundreds of miles of roads, which have caused their own environmental damage as many deteriorate. Georgia ForestWatch’s efforts to halt this damaging practice peaked in 1995 when we appealed seven timber sales that proposed cutting mature hardwoods in roadless areas. After the appeal was denied the following year, ForestWatch joined six other groups to press the issue in federal court as Sierra Club v George Martin. The court ruled that the Forest Service had failed in its duty to monitor the effects of the timber harvest program, bringing a halt to this controversial logging practice. The Chattahoochee National Forest timber program has never returned to its pre-lawsuit levels.
Identifying and preserving old-growth
In 1991, the acting supervisor of the Chattahoochee National Forest declared that only four acres of old-growth trees remained in the forest. Active ForestWatchers knew better. ForestWatch hired Jess Riddle to lead the search and answer the question, “How much old growth is left?” For three years, Jess and Georgia ForestWatch volunteers scoured steep and remote mountainsides, eventually discovering over 7,000 acres of never logged forests! ForestWatch has uncovered additional stands through our review of Forest Service projects and surveys of roadless areas, and with additional finds in a Forest Service survey of the Chattooga River watershed, we now know that remnants of north Georgia’s original forest survive on at least 15,000 acres. Protecting these ancient forests remains one of our top priorities.
Protecting streams through road closures
Roads are the biggest source of sediment pollution of streams in forested landscapes. Unfortunately, maintenance plans for the Forest Service road system have never been realistic and resources have been sparse to monitor and correct behaviors that cause major damage on our Forest. Georgia ForestWatch has made it a priority over the years to monitor conditions, report problems and urge the Forest Service to take decisive protective actions.
When in 1973 the Forest Service acquired their last major tract for the Chattahoochee National Forest, they also acquired a very steep and deteriorating road that wound for 10 miles across the Rich Mountains. The Forest Service refused to acknowledge ownership of the road, alleging that the road belonged to Gilmer County. However, no easements had been granted, and the county had made no claims on the road. With no maintenance and steep grades, the road deteriorated into an epic mudbogging course, drawing off-road vehicles from hundreds of miles away. Unauthorized ATV trails snuck off the ‘road’ into the Rich Mountain Wilderness. Georgia ForestWatch sued the Forest Service in 2004. The settlement agreement resulted in the western third of the road being obliterated and the rest being rebuilt and gated during the winter. Illegal off-road activity ceased.
Near Amicalola Falls State Park, Frosty Mountain Road closely parallels the Appalachian Approach Trail and stretches from Nimblewill Gap over Frosty Mountain the turn off to the Len Foote Hike Inn. The road served no particular public or Forest need but had deteriorated badly due to a lack of Forest Service maintenance and frequent use as an off-road course by convoys of street legal 4-wheel-drive vehicles. These vehicles created a giant mudbog within sight of the Appalachian Approach Trail, and spinning rough tread tires on the many steep sections of the road have significantly increased road deterioration.
During the Forest planning process of the late 1990s, ForestWatch and other conservation groups argued that the Appalachian Approach Trail was legally entitled to the same protection as the Appalachian Trail itself and that the Frosty Mountain Road was inappropriate. Georgia ForestWatch frequently documented damage to the road from the convoys coming and going from Amicalola Falls State Park to Len Foote Hike Inn. Riparian areas along this access road had been turned into mudbogs.
After a decade of documentation and complaints, the Forest Service gated the road at Nimblewill Gap and at the turnoff to the Hike Inn. Although gates were torn down multiple times, perpetrators were caught and faced hefty penalties under a new fine schedule. As of 2019 the gates were up and the road is closed for good.
The Tray Mountain Road served as an ugly example of the problems affecting the 1500 mile plus road system on the Chattahoochee Oconee National Forest. Tray Mountain Road, FS 79, stretches from highway 17, north of Helen for 8 miles to Tray Gap, then another 4 miles to highway 356. Elevations over the course of this road range from 1400’ to 3841’. The very steep eastern section of the road known as the Chimney Mountain Road is the eastern border of the Tray Mountain Wilderness Area.
With little money for maintenance, over time the road deteriorated dramatically, particularly on the steep eastern section. By the 2010s it had become passable only with high clearance 4-wheel-drive vehicles. Convoys of street-legal vehicles from the cities churned up and down the road further increasing the damage until even these rugged vehicles became stuck and wrecker services in nearby Cleveland Georgia regularly received calls from stranded drivers. Riparian areas alongside the road were turned into mud bogs.
Georgia ForestWatch members documented the damage with photos and letters. Ironically, riding enthusiasts regularly posted You tube videos of their mudbogging exploits. In the spring of 2018 Debbie Gilbert, a reporter for the White County News wrote an article illustrating the road situation. Shortly thereafter the Forest Service temporarily closed the eastern part of the road with portable barricades and signs. Perpetrators destroyed the barricades and signs and the damage continued until the spring of 2019 when a major enforcement operation resulted in numerous expensive tickets.
At this point the cost of rehabilitating the eastern half of this road is estimated to be hundreds of thousands of dollars. ForestWatch hopes that the Forest Service will permanently close the road, and given a chronic lack of maintenance money we have urged the Agency to consider closing other non-essential roads before they cause similar serious damage.
Improving and reducing ill-advised Forest Service Projects
ForestWatch investigates, monitors, and suggests improvements to a multitude of Forest Service projects. Following are examples of successes.
In December of 2005, the Forest Service announced a plan to heavily harvest timber across 735 acres of mature forest on Brawley Mountain. Once the trees had been cut and harvested, they proposed to burn the area repeatedly and kill re-sprouting hardwoods with herbicides with the aim to restore a woodland.
Georgia ForestWatch observed that significant project acreage was mature oak forest and showed evidence that a “woodland” had never existed at this site. Consequently, Timber harvesting for this ill-advised project was reduced from 735 to around 400 acres, sparing much of the mature oak forest. The Forest Service also improved the monitoring schedule needed to determine any success or failure of this experimental forest management.
In addition to commenting on proposed projects Georgia ForestWatch monitors projects that have been approved and are being implemented to assure that environmental safeguards are in place and that the timber contractor follows the project guidelines. During a visit to the Brawley project in 2015 Georgia ForestWatch surveyors discovered a number of tractor trailer vans parked on site. Further investigation revealed that the contractor, in violation of project guidelines, was chipping small diameter trees and hauling the ground pulp to a subsidized biomass plant. This flagrant violation of the contract had gone unnoticed by the Forest Service and the stewardship partner in the project. ForestWatch reported the violation to the District Ranger and law enforcement visited the scene to halt the activity.
In July of 2012 the Blue Ridge Ranger District of the Chattahoochee Oconee National Forest (CONF) proposed thinning 7,000 acres of ‘overstocked’ pines to prevent disease. These 7,000 acres comprised some 120 stands, theoretically areas of similar forest type and age that generally range from 20 to 80 acres. The entire CONF is mapped and divided into thousands of these stands by the Forest Service.
The area of proposal was well known to ForestWatch and it was difficult for us to imagine that a great many areas had thick stands of disease prone pines. ForestWatch surveyors looked at 20 random stands over several days and found that only one stand had ‘overstocked’ pines. Many stands had no pines of any type. When challenged by District leader Jim Walker, the Forest Service acknowledged that most of the stands did not need ‘treatment’. The project was shelved then reissued for only about 500 acres.
In 2013 the Forest Service proposed a series of timber sales in the Warwoman Wildlife Management Area which they labeled as the Upper Warwoman Landscape Management Project. The project encompassed some 1,200 acres of timber harvest, prescribed burning, herbicide use and road reconstruction and construction. Georgia ForestWatch spent a significant amount of time in the field examining the project and was able to negotiate some substantial improvements before the project was finally approved in 2015,
A stand of old growth timber was identified by ForestWatch Forest Ecologist Jess Riddle and this was dropped from the project. In addition, Forest Service plans to rebuild and extend a road up the west side of Tuckaluge Creek were abandoned. Georgia ForestWatch pointed out that according to the Agency’s own estimates, the rebuilding and extension of the Tuckaluge spur road on the west side of the creek would cost $900,000 and significantly impact the creek. In addition, a permanently open reconstructed road up the west side of Tuckaluge Creek would have sliced off part of the Windy Gap Area roadless area.
The rebuilding and extending this road would also have allowed tractor trailer trucks to access the mature timber on the west side of Tuckaluge Creek and the upper part of the water shed. The existing roads on both sides of the creek were and are unsuitable for tractor trailer traffic. In fact, many of the steep narrow roads found on this Forest are unsuitable for such vehicles and designing timber sales around criteria of big truck access is often unfeasible. However, for economic reasons, qualified timber contractors only use tractor trailers to haul timber.
ATVs and License Plates
In the late ‘90s, All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) were being issued license plates by mountain counties in north Georgia, and with plates they could ride legally on Forest Service roads. Once on the roads, they ran wild and opened up old logging roads and trails all over the 867,000 acres of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest (CONF), including wilderness areas. Forest Service law enforcement was overwhelmed. Georgia ForestWatch looked into the matter and discovered that under existing Georgia code ATVs were not entitled to plates, and in 2001 with the help of Mary MacLean Asbill, an attorney with the Turner Environmental Law Clinic, pressured the state to order the offending counties to quit issuing plates to ATVs. However, many attempts to change state legislation followed, and over the next seven years, various bills were introduced attempting to legalize ATVs on public roads. ForestWatch, along with other conservation organizations, worked to block all of these attempts. Conservative landowners in South Georgia became allies in this endeavor when ATVs began accessing their private lands via public roads. Private land owners became very active to keep ATVs off public roads. Now illegal ATV trails on the CONF are rare. None of this would have been possible without the help of Neil Herring, lobbyist for the Sierra Club, who showed us the ropes down at the state capitol and worked on the issue year after year.
Cashes Valley lies at the head of Fightingtown Creek, northwest of Ellijay, on the eastern slope of the Cohutta Mountains. The upper part of the valley is in Gilmer County while the lower part is in Fannin County. The Valley can only be reached by an old public road that fords Fightingtown Creek, four times. During winter or periods of high water the deteriorating road becomes virtually impassible.
Parts of the Cashes Valley watershed comprise the eastern end of the 12,000 acre Mountaintown Inventoried Roadless Area, which is the inventoried largest roadless area on the Chattahoochee National Forest. Formally identified roadless areas are eligible for Wilderness protection. The Mountaintown Roadless Area was in fact proposed for Wilderness designation in all the draft versions of the current Forest Plan.
At one time Cashes Valley contained the village of Ai, a school, church, post office and numerous residents. Several cemeteries testify to this. Electrical service never reached Cashes Valley. The last resident, Boyd Johnson, died in the early 1990s. The Forest Service by this time owned 90% of the land in Cashes Valley. The wildest section in Georgia of the Benton MacKaye Trail curls around the top of Cashes Valley for over a dozen miles.
With the rise of All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs), in the late 1980s Cashes Valley became a playground for illegal off road activity. User created ATV trails emanated in all directions from the public road. The Benton MacKaye Trail came to resemble an off road vehicle course rather than a foot-travel-only trail. Many of the structures in Cashes Valley were looted and burned to the ground, including the beautiful 100-year-old Church of Christ.
Beginning in 2000, Georgia ForestWatch initiated a campaign to end illegal ATV activity in the valley and protect the integrity of the Mountaintown Roadless Area. At the urging of Georgia ForestWatch, the Forest Service made several attempts to block illegal trails. These efforts were not robust enough and failed. A major problem was that in violation of Georgia law, ATVs were allowed to ride the public road in the Valley with impunity. As a former Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer (LEO), Jim Wilson, noted, “How can we keep them out of the woods if we can’t keep them off of the roads.”
In 2006, Georgia ForestWatch petitioned the Forest Supervisor to allow Forest Service LEOs to enforce the law and to prohibit ATV travel on public roads crossing Forest Service land. Unleashing the LEOs in Cashes Valley made a huge difference. Georgia ForestWatch surveyed the remaining illegal ATV trails and joint ForestWatch/Forest Service work projects in 2008, 2013 and 2016 created robust blocks at the remaining illegal ATV trails. As of 2019 all traces of ATV use in the valley are gone. Thanks go to Rangers Michelle Jones and Jeff Gardner who responded vigorously to the problem.
The first Forest Management Plan for the Chattahoochee National Forest in 1986 created several off road vehicle areas, among them Locust Stake in Stephens County, near Toccoa, GA. This area proved to be a disastrous selection for an ORV area. Sitting on the headwaters of the North Fork of the Broad River with highly erodible soil types and steep slopes, the area soon turned into a mess. All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) ran wild and trails became trenches, in some cases 10 feet deep, polluting the North Fork of the Broad River with literally tons of sediment. In 1996 Forest Service recreation staff surveyed the trail system and documented illegal user-created trails and “un-refutable evidence of unacceptable soil movement and off-site displacement.” The economics of Locust Stake were also untenable. Forest Service representatives noted that the district’s entire annual trail budget would be inadequate to properly maintain the trails, and closure of the trails was recommended.
Despite these findings and recommendations, the area remained open. In 2010 Georgia ForestWatch, led by the late Joe Gatins, District Leader, mounted a campaign to close Locust Stake. Additional evidence of damage was submitted to the Forest Service, and the area was temporarily closed in 2013. The following year the Forest Service proposed to rehabilitate the area and in the meantime temporarily closed the majority of the Locust Stake trails. Georgia ForestWatch and the Southern Environmental Law Center responded strongly that if the area were opened under any scenario, the damage would resume violating not only Forest Service regulations but state and local erosion and sedimentation laws. Nonetheless, the Forest Service chose to clean up the area and reopened a much shortened trail system. Georgia ForestWatch continued to document the renewed destruction and a 2019 study by the Forest Service’s Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory confirmed that the area was discharging unacceptable levels of silt into the North Fork of the Broad River. Locust Stake was closed in 2019 and remains closed.
On May 23, 2008, the U.S. Forest Service announced that after five years of analysis the agency would permanently close the Anderson Creek Off-Road Vehicle Area. This decision culminated a decade-long campaign by Georgia ForestWatch to end the damage that off-road vehicles were causing in this sensitive area. ForestWatch volunteers and staff spent countless hours hiking the eroding ORV created trails and documenting degradation of this portion of the Chattahoochee National Forest.
This included production of a short video of ORVs mudbogging spring heads and damaging steep slopes that was shown to Forest Service officials. This, along with news media articles and a threat of legal action turned the tide to finally close the Anderson Creek off road vehicle area.
From its inception, Georgia ForestWatch has cooperated with Forest Service Law Enforcement by reporting illegal ATV trails, torn-down gates, illegal dumps, squatting and other violations. By the mid-2000s, it became clear that the fines for violations were not nearly high enough to deter criminal activity. Most violations carried fines of $50, little more than a user fee. In 2008 the head of law enforcement on the Forest initiated a campaign to increase the schedule of fines called the collateral schedule.
This effort turned out to be a complicated bureaucratic process. The schedule of fines had to be approved by all federal agencies managing land in the Northern Judicial District of Georgia as well as all Judges, Magistrates and Prosecutors in the District. Led by Dan Bowden, longtime Georgia ForestWatch member and former board member, Georgia ForestWatch pitched in with a letter and phone call campaign to contact all involved, informing them of the importance of the issue and the need to accelerate the process. In 2016 after eight long years the schedule of fines was substantially increased. Georgia ForestWatch received thanks from the Forest Service for our support.