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The Chattahoochee National Forest and Cohutta Wilderness are visible from the Cool Creek overlook in Fort Mountain State Park. A stretch of roadway from Prater's Mill to Fort Mountain is part of a planned scenic byway to help boost tourism in the area. / Staff Photo by Steve Davis

A large federal forest project twice the size of Atlanta that could potentially involve timbering activities on tens of thousands of acres of woodland is drawing criticism from conservationists who say they knew too little too late.

The U.S Forest Service plan, known as the Foothills Landscape Project and released Dec. 2, seeks to conserve more than 5,000 acres of old growth forest, create small canopy gaps and restore woodland habitat "with a mosaic of sunlight and shade" in portions of the project area, create young forest, expand meadow-like spaces and use fire to reduce underbrush on up to 50,000 acres, and maintain existing Southern yellow pine and oak by thinning overcrowded timber stands to improve sun exposure.

Forest Service documents state that only 4% of the project area would see removal and replacement of trees to make stands reflect more appropriate species.

It would cover 157,000 acres in Georgia's largest national forest — the Chattahoochee National Forest, which draws almost 3 million visitors a year — and includes a portion of the Cohutta Wildlife Management Area in Murray, Fannin and Gilmer counties; the rest lies on federal land in Dawson, Fannin, Gilmer, Habersham, Lumpkin, Murray, Rabun and White counties, according to project data.

Forest Service officials didn't respond this week to questions about the project, but federal documents outline the Foothills Landscape Project's general goals, stating that "ecological restoration assists in the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed."

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The Foothills Landscape Project

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"Because of past practices, the Foothills Landscape is now mostly an even-aged, closed canopy forest that doesn't provide benefits for all the different species that need a variety of natural habitats," the Foothills Landscape Project proposed action document released in December states. "Open light environments, like woodlands, provide forage, seed, pollen and nesting cover to specific species over a long part of the year, while mature forests provide habitat to a suite of species that may use tree cavities or canopy habitat."

Critics, however, contend the proposal would allow what the Southern Environmental Law Center estimates will be up to 60,000 acres of commercial timber harvest, 50,000 acres of prescribed burning, 360 miles of new bulldozer paths for the burning project and an unspecified number of other roads, as well as changes and relocation of trails and campgrounds.

They say the Forest Service under the Trump administration has put timbering ahead of the environment, and the Foothills Landscape Project is an example.

FOOTHILLS LANDSCAPE PROJECT NUMBERS

According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, the U.S. Forest Service’s proposed Foothills Landscape Project will look to implement the following actions across the more than 157,000 acres of the Chattahoochee National Forest, including the Chattooga River, DeSoto Falls, Warwoman Dell, Dicks Creek and portions of the Bartram and Pinhoti Trails:

— Up to 60,000 acres of commercial timber harvest with total commercial and noncommercial harvest reaching over 80,000 acres

— 50,000 acres of prescribed burning

— Constructing 360 miles of new bulldozer paths to facilitate prescribed burning

— Herbicide application across as much as 74,500 acres

— Grinding vegetation to wood chips using industrial machinery on up to 83,000 acres

— Building an undisclosed amount of “new, temporary” roads

— Rerouting up to 111 miles of trail

— Decommissioning trails and dispersed camping areas

Source: Southern Environmental Law Center

"[It] has been single-mindedly pursuing one goal: cutting more trees by cutting out public participation," according to Scott Smallwood, Southern Environmental Law Center communications manager.

The Chattahoochee National Forest's entire footprint totals more than 750,000 acres in North Georgia and offers thousands of miles of streams and rivers, 850 miles of recreation trails and dozens of campgrounds, picnic areas and other recreational resources for swimming, hiking, biking, water skiing, hunting and fishing.

About 244,000 people live across eight Georgia counties within the proposed project areas, according to a 206-page Forest Service assessment.

 

CONTROVERSIAL APPROACH

The Forest Service describes the Foothills Landscape Project as a "condition-based" restoration project in which specific geographic locations for proposed activities are not outlined in the plans and only the maximum acreage for treatment is provided. Federal officials said the approach proposed last year is intended to streamline projects.

In July, conservationists rallied against it at the U.S. Forest Service office in Atlanta, calling the changes "loopholes." More than 100,000 comments in opposition were collected, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The condition-based approach is being used by the Forest Service "to bypass basic requirements of [the National Environmental Policy Act], one of our most important environmental regulations," according to Smallwood.

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Proposed action for the Foothills Landscape project

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"Those loopholes have not been finalized yet but would allow logging without any public involvement and without the obligation to consider alternatives that would avoid unnecessary harm," he added.

Aside from a lack a details, critics say the condition-based Foothills plan limits public involvement and feedback.

The deadline for public comment is Friday — a 38-day window.

"This all came out in early December, which was, I think, really unfortunate," said Patrick Hunter, attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. "Over the holidays is definitely the hardest time for people to sit down and invest time in understanding and looking at these sorts of things."

Hunter said the problem for the public is the federal agency wants to be able to check the box for public input on the project under the National Environmental Policy Act so it can more quickly move forward with projects.

Another problem is the long-term scope of the project and the number of important decisions that won't be made until the public is taken out of the equation, he said. At the current pace, some of the project's proposed timbering might not take place for 30 or 40 years, he said.

"Someone could be impacted by this project and might not even be born for 10 years," Hunter said.

"Whether you trust them or not, they haven't even made decisions about where they're going to do things on the ground, so you can't effectively assess and disclose the impact of your action if you do not know where that action will occur," Hunter said. "Our national forests in the Southern Appalachians are extremely diverse, so you can't treat them all with a cookie-cutter approach."

 

PUBLIC FEEDBACK

As the end of the 30-day comment period approaches, many of the more than 985 public comments listed this week in the online "public comment/objection reading room" on the Forest Service's proposed project flatly objected to the proposed work and voiced concerns mostly over the lack of public input and project information, but also regarding the use of chemicals, the construction of roads and the size and scope of the project.

"The enormity of the area covered in this project is the first troubling aspect. I'm not sure how the FS can assume to know anything at this scale," Brent Martin said in his comment. Martin specifically objected to the construction of any roads, temporary or not, and said there should be more consensus with conservationists and recreation groups.

"I don't think the FS has a crystal ball, and to move forward with such enormous assumptions at the landscape scale is both backward thinking and perhaps dangerous," Martin said.

GET YOUR TWO CENTS IN

To learn more and comment on the U.S. Forest Service’s Foothills Landscape Project in North Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest online, go to www.fs.usda.gov/goto/Foothills. Friday, Jan. 10, is the last day to file a comment.

Commenter Lori Leigh agreed the project was too large and suggested it be reduced to smaller pieces that would be individually open to public comment. And she worried about the planned use of herbicides.

"The ability to apply herbicide to broad areas not defined up front is terribly unsafe to the watersheds and to all of us in proximity," Leigh states. "This forested area is far more vital to us in it's current state for carbon capture than as wood product; particularly of hardwood. This project leaves way too much undefined and can't be allowed to go forward."

The Appalachia Georgia Friends of Bears, on the other hand, applauded parts of the Forest Service plan that sought to maintain and restore oak and pine trees' habitat, establish young forest habitats and chestnut trees, and specific plans for 100-foot buffers to protect known black bear den sites.

However, the group's founder, Gerald D. Hodge Jr., noted concerns about long-term loss of trees that produce nuts or fruit, and urged protection of varieties of oaks that produce food for bears.

He is also worried about implementation of the Forest Service plan.

"We do not want to see this plan implemented like the USFS 2014-2015 project in Coker Creek, Tennessee, that resulted in the destruction of the centuries old Unicoi Turnpike/Trail of Tears," Hodge states.

Hodge is referring to damage to the Trail of Tears in Monroe County done by Forest Service bulldozers in 2014. The federal agency admitted to, apologized for and promised to fix the damage, but has not said when the repairs will happen. A woman who lives near the damaged portion of the Trail of Tears told the Times Free Press in mid-December that no repairs have been made.

Commenter Melanie Vickers said her biggest concern was limits on public participation after specific sites for treatments are identified, and she remarked the Forest Service meeting she attended in Rabun County in December was disappointing.

"I was very disappointed that the attendees were not allowed to have questions answered in a group setting," she stated. "This did not feel like you valued our input as citizens at all."

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

 

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