Your government is at work to cheat you again.
You only have until Friday night to tell the U.S. Forest Service that its plan to timber in North Georgia's Chattahoochee National Forest is a bad idea. Or at least an idea that needs more study and more time for the public to digest it than just a day. After all — this isn't just Forest Service land. It's your land. Our land. Public land.
The Forest Service on Dec. 2 rolled out this monster plan (we're talking about an affected area twice the size of Atlanta) to cut and market trees on as much as 60,000 acres, perform prescribed burns on 50,000 acres, herbicide up to 74,500 acres and put 360 miles of new bulldozer paths for all that work in the Chattahoochee National Forest. And the Forest Service set a 38-day window for public comments on the 206-page environmental assessment.
Surprise! Friday is the last day of that public comment period.
Never mind Christmas. Never mind the New Year holiday. Never mind football playoffs and impeachment and the Iran crisis. We were all supposed to somehow divine that the Forest Service's pleasant sounding "Foothills Landscape Project" was something that needed immediate attention.
After all, we're just talking about 157,000 acres of Georgia's largest national forest — a 750,000-acre treasure which draws almost 3 million visitors a year and includes a portion of the Cohutta Wildlife Management area in Murray, Fannin and Gilmer counties due east of Dalton and just south across the Volunteer State line from the Ocoee River area and Copperhill. And, yes, our very local portion — the Oconee forest — is in the affected zone.
In fact, if it were not for the eagle eyes of a handful of conservationists and environmental watchdogs such as the Southern Environmental Law Center, we might have missed this plan and its too-short comment period altogether, only to wake up when neighbors heard bulldozers tearing into the forest.
The Forest Service treats the description of its "landscape project" just as it did the sweet-sounding name. "Thinking like a landscape, a new way of thinking," reads the slick video on the Facebook page for the U.S. Forest Service — Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests.
FOOTHILLS LANDSCAPE PROJECT NUMBERS
According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, the U.S. Forest Service’s proposed Foothills Landscape Project would result in 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
"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 proposal document 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 beg to differ, saying the Forest Service under the Trump Administration has put timbering ahead of the environment, and the Foothills Landscape Project is a perfect example. So is the Forest Service's so-called "condition-based restoration" plans outlined for this project.
"[It] has been single-mindedly pursuing one goal: cutting more trees by cutting out public participation," Scott Smallwood, of the Southern Environmental Law Center, told Times Free Press reporter Ben Benton. Smallwood also said the "condition-based" approach is nice wording for loopholes being used by the Forest Service "to bypass basic requirements of [the National Environmental Policy Act], one of our most important environmental regulations."
Forest Service spokesman Steven Bekkerus in an email Thursday said there is no objective for any amount of wood volume harvest in the plan; "rather harvest volume is a by-product of management for other purposes."
The vagueness of this plan and its name should have been all the warning we needed. The fact that it was dropped during the holidays with a ridiculously short comment period ending Friday was just an added twist to the knife.
If the Forest Service wants to try engendering some trust, perhaps it will extend the comment period for another 30 — or better still — 60 days.
But we certainly shouldn't bet on that.
Light them up, readers.
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.