The public — that means you, readers — has less than a month now to comment on a U.S. Forest Service project twice the size of Atlanta dubbed the Foothills Landscape Project. It's a plan the Forest Service claims will conserve more than 5,000 acres of old-growth forest, create small canopy gaps and restore woodland habitat for native species of plants and animals.
But the sweet-sounding "Foothills Landscape Project" has a checkered past, beginning with this short time frame for public review. A month is not long — but it's sure longer than the few days we had the first time this plan came to light in 2020. At that time, we dubbed the plan a "monster" smuggled into the 2019 Christmas and 2020 New Year's holidays. Just the time most of us were focused on family gifts and football playoffs and a former president's impeachment.
That year, the Forest Service rolled out its landscape plan 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 create 360 miles of new bulldozer paths for all that work in the Chattahoochee National Forest. And they set a 38-day window for public comments on the 206-page environmental assessment.
Thanks to the eagle eyes of a handful of conservationists and environmental watchdogs such as the Southern Environmental Law Center, that plan and its too-short comment period was turned on its head before neighbors heard bulldozers tearing into the forest.
Now a revised plan, released Oct. 27, gives us a total of 45 days — until Dec. 13 — to review what the Forest Service has called "restoration activities" to provide "a mosaic of sunlight and shade" and recreation enhancements across 157,625 acres of federal land within the Conasauga, Blue Ridge and Chattooga River ranger districts of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests.
Read the Forest Service’s summary of the Foothills Landscape Project and find a link to the whole plan at www.fs.usda.gov/goto/Foothills.
Much of the work is planned in the portion of the forest nearest to Chattanooga in Murray, Fannin and Gilmer counties, though other work also is planned in the Blue Ridge and Chattooga River districts in Dawson, Habersham, Lumpkin, Rabun and White counties.
Under federal laws in place since 2013, objections can only be filed by those who have previously commented during a 30-day public input period. The late 2019 comment period didn't draw enough input, so with a push from the Southern Environmental Law Center, another 30-day comment period was held in July 2021.
The SELC, the largest nonprofit environmental legal advocacy organization in the South, has understandably been dubious of the project.
In 2020, SELC's Scott Smallwood told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that the plan's "condition-based" approach was nice wording for loopholes being used to bypass basic requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, one of our most important environmental regulations. The Forest Service, he said, "has been single mindedly pursuing one goal: cutting more trees by cutting out public participation."
This year, SELC lawyers say they are heartened by revisions in the plan.
"We commend the forest service for listening to public concerns and changing its approach to the Foothills Landscape Project," law center senior attorney Brian Gist told the TFP in an emailed statement. Law center officials are still poring over the revisions in the document, and they like some of what they see so far, he said.
SELC is especially encouraged by the Forest Service's plan to use a "phased review" of projects in the plan.
"Informed public input is critical to responsible forest management and, if implemented correctly, the phased approach will better allow the people who live near, recreate in, and love this area of the Chattahoochee National Forest to have a voice in the Foothills Landscape Project," Gist said.
About 244,000 people live in the project area, according to 2017 estimates.
Gist said SELC officials will determine whether to file an objection as the December deadline approaches.
Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests Forest Supervisor Edward Hunter called the Foothills Landscape Project "a model for collaboration" that provides "the opportunity to address critical challenges threatening the forest."
In a recent email to the TFP, Hunter wrote about the pressures on the forest from climate change and exploding public demand for recreation.
"As one of the most biologically diverse regions, with climate change upon us, rare habitats and the species dependent upon them are at risk of extinction," he said in the statement. "Humans have played a critical role in shaping these landscapes, for better and worse, for thousands of years. We have a responsibility to future generations to learn from our past and apply that knowledge toward the future. I feel the Foothills Landscape Project offers a necessary and substantial step toward a healthier, more resilient Chattahoochee National Forest and these adored lands throughout the north Georgia mountains."
Hey, you. Public. Get involved. The deadline is Dec. 13 — just 29 days away now. Let your voices be heard.