Conservationists file lawsuit over logging plan near Polk County, Tenn., trout stream [photos]

Coalition says U.S. Forest Service is trying to hide erosion, pollution risks

Local conservationists are worried erosion from a proposed logging project along Tumbling Creek, a trout stream in the mountains west of Copperhill, Tenn., could cause significant damage to the environment. Two local conservation groups have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forestry Service to stop the project until the government satisfies concerns about the legality of the project.

A coalition of Tennessee conservation groups has filed a federal lawsuit alleging the U.S. Forest Service's approval of a logging project in Polk County is endangering a sparkling trout stream.

Tumbling Creek flows through hemlocks and beech trees on the southeastern corner of the Cherokee National Forest's Ocoee District. It provides anglers a cold-water trout stream and families a quiet setting near Copperhill for camping, wading and picnicking.

Dinkey timber sale

Tennessee Heartwood, a nonprofit group that advocates for Tennessee’s public forests, describes the current work proposed for the “Dinkey Sale” located in Polk County, Tenn., near the Georgia border.› 230 acres of clear-cuts, shelter-wood cuts, and seed-tree cuts with burns and herbicides› 356 acres of mid-story thinning with burning and herbicides› 444 acres of “cut-and-leave” mid-story thinning› 734 acres of prescribed burning that alternate between dormant and growing season burns between two to five years› 32 acres of noncommercial thinning› 75-acre “extended stream side management zones” for logging of 50 percent of the canopy along Tumbling Creek. This will be the second-tier buffer strip between the creek and the heavy logging along the slope.› An old logging road will be reactivated across Tumbling Creek at one point, where a deposit of Anakeesta Shale is located. Anakeesta Shale is known to cause acid rock damage where roads have been cut in the past.› Some of the slopes that will be logged exceed 35 percent in steepness and are highly susceptible to runoff, erosion and compacting from logging equipment.Source: Tennessee Heartwood

The Forest Service wants to allow a timber sale on lands not far from the banks of Tumbling Creek as part of restoration efforts to replace non-characteristic trees logged from the land with trees characteristic to the area. The project area is about 3,700 acres, and timbering is proposed on more than 500 acres of it.

Federal officials told the Times Free Press in September that timber sales are offered as part of the agency's restoration efforts to return an area to "a more natural state" by restoring the ecosystem with appropriate vegetation, officials said. Forest Service officials contend that Tumbling Creek doesn't face an impact from the planned timbering project.

But Tumbling Creek, indeed, faces impacts from logging and associated soil compaction on a steep, concave slope that would be susceptible to erosion of topsoil if logging was permitted, according to conservationist Davis Mounger, co-founder of Tennessee Heartwood, and Southern Environmental Law Center staff attorney Sam Evans. Evans leads the center's National Forests and Parks program.

The Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club and Tennessee Heartwood have questioned the proposal of a 534-acre timbering project, known as the "Dinkey Sale," for almost four years, pointing out potential soil erosion and compaction problems with their own analysis as well as evidence they say exists in the Forest Service's own data and backs up conservation concerns. The groups contend Dinkey could end up looking like two nearby timber sales - the Hogback Sale and Island Creek Sale on Slyco Ridge south of Lake Ocoee - which both exhibit large areas of erosion, in many places down to the chert layer. Runoff cuts deeply into the soil at the sites where mostly only scrub brush is growing and few desirable, native species of trees have regenerated.

The Forest Service in August 2017 responded, saying the federal agency would not consider the groups' 24-page July 2017 letter citing objections to the project.

And in an Aug. 25, 2017, letter responding to the coalition, Cherokee National Forest supervisor JaSal Morris said the groups' objection "does not provide sufficient information for the reviewing officer to review."

Morris cited a failure by the objection to outline forest laws or policies that were being violated and failure to demonstrate a connection between the groups' objection and its earlier comments. A Jan. 29 letter to the groups from Morris about a review of the objections included as part of court documents in the suit reiterates his original decision that the objections didn't comply with federal law.

"Dismissing legitimate citizen concerns is the most egregious aspect about this risky, ill-advised logging project," Evans said in a statement on the suit. "The public came forward and said, 'we don't want to see these kinds of erosion problems on our lands ever again,' but the agency simply refuses to learn from its mistakes.

"They are sweeping literal dirt under the rug."

Evans, Mounger and other members of the groups are worried that commercial logging will expose steep slopes and unstable soils near Tumbling Creek to erosion, jeopardizing water quality in what is "one of the healthiest watersheds and streams in the area," the opponents said in the statement.

"It's not that we just disagree with the Cherokee National Forest leadership about this project; it's that they refuse to consider any science or data that might require them to do things differently," Mounger said. "This pattern of dodging our concerns has damaged the forest time after time, and they have left us with no other options."

The federal suit filed March 15 seeks an injunction on the Dinkey project, a reversal of the federal agency's dismissal of of the conservation groups' objections "unless the [Forest Service] complies with the requirements of law," and stoppage of any work associated with logging near Tumbling Creek, according to the suit document.

U.S. Forestry officials were in Chattanooga on Tuesday for a regional Environmental Analysis and Decision Making roundtable discussion with more than 40 stakeholders from across the South including conservationists, timber company officials, forestry officials and other interested parties, including Evans and Mounger.

Federal officials would not discuss the Dinkey Sale or the pending suit at the meeting.

Frank R. Beum, the Forest Service's deputy regional forester, was one of the leaders in attendance.

"This is one of 10 of these roundtables we're holding around the country," Beum said. "We're seeking input from our partners to identify challenges and opportunities to increase our efficiency in environmental analysis and decision-making.

"We're trying to increase collaboration in our work with the national forests, and this is one way we can do that," he said.

Participants were asked to list major issues they feel the Forest Service should address and, while some ranged far, three of the top issues were transparency, trust, a lack of communication and high turnover among Forest Service staff.

Opponents see the meetings as part of an initiative to change the forest service's policies for public participation. Under current rules, the agency accepts public comment on decisions to sell timber in logging projects, open and close roads, build or close trails, and discloses the environmental impacts of those decisions, the conservationists maintain. The federal initiative is reconsidering, among other things, whether all of those kinds of actions deserve environmental analysis and public comment, group members said.

The effort in some ways pits efficiency against the environment and could set a precedent for dealing with environmental issues, Evans and Mounger contend.

"The timber sale near Tumbling Creek really hits home why we need an attentive response to public input by the Forest Service," Mounger said. "After five years of environmental assessment, the Forest Service missed the most important fact, that logging on these steep slopes will be detrimental to the landscape. The decision-making process is meant to engage everyday citizens like myself, who use and access the public lands that the Forest Service is supposed to responsibly manage. We should not curtail citizens' right just because someone doesn't want to hear what the public has to say about a project."

Southern Environmental Law Center staff attorney Anne Passino agrees the project poses "too great a risk to move forward."

"The streams near Tumbling Creek are among the last clean waterways in the area - the few spared from sediment pollution - and are a special place for fisherman, local communities and families who visit this area to create memories," Passino said.

Some local citizens have tried to raise awareness around disastrous timber sales in the past and have condemned the taxpayer dollars wasted trying to remediate them, the opponents said in the statement on the suit.

"The Forest Service is cutting out the public from the decision-making process that impacts our lands," Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club conservation chairman Axel Ringe said. "The agency should at least explain what it has learned from recent mistakes and why it believes they won't happen again. This lack of transparency makes it impossible for us to trust that logging along Tumbling Creek will be any different than previous projects."

Evans is glad the Forest Service understands problems exist in the decision-making process but "improving the process will require the agency to listen to the public," he said. "There's a temptation to limit public participation in the name of 'efficiency,' with the idea that if no one can complain, then nothing is wrong.

"That would be very shortsighted. How the Forest Service moves forward with changes in their decision-making process today will impact public lands, including the Cherokee National Forest, in irreversible ways for future generations."

Evans has hope for improvements, though.

"We heard today that the agency understands this and wants to get it right, and we will be reaching out to partners throughout East Tennessee to make sure they know when and how to have their voices heard," Evans said.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at