The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Forest Service plans to help preserve more than 157,000 acres of forest in North Georgia, with its Foothills Landscape Project, but some local conservationist organizations want more environmental reviews and a more detailed plan to judge.
The Foothills Landscape Project has been in the works since 2016, with years of environmental assessments, public comment periods and revisions already conducted in attempt to create a cogent 15-year plan to preserve a huge swath of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests for the long term.
The subject area contains parts of Dawson, Fannin, Gilmer, Habersham, Lumpkin, Murray, Rabun and White counties.
The plan’s stated goal is to: “Create, restore and maintain ecosystems that are more resilient to natural disturbances.”
In the final draft of the plan, released Oct. 26, forest supervisor Edward Hunter Jr. wrote, “The reality facing our forests is that without active management on the ground to increase the resiliency of these ecosystems and difficult decisions for the sustainability of our recreation program, these public lands and all their inhabitants are at severe risk.”
Hunter wrote that the plan should have limited impact on public health, the subject areas contain no prime farmland or parklands and help ameliorate areas with poor water quality.
But Georgia ForestWatch, the Chattooga Conservancy, Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society filed a joint 25-page objection to the plan on Dec. 13. The objection states the plan lacks sufficient opportunities for public participation, circumvents future National Environmental Protection Agency review and lacks clarity on how the plan will be implemented in specific areas. The plan does not properly account for carbon emissions and carbon storage, the objection states, and the plan would lead to an increase in carbon emissions in the near term.
The final environmental assessment, “unlawfully fails to identify the actions that will receive additional review and the actions that will not,” wrote J.D. McCrary executive director of ForestWatch in a statement to The Times.
“(The final assessment) does not quantify the project’s likely impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Given the threat posed by climate change and the need to reduce emissions in the near term, it is important for the Forest Service to understand the impact of its actions on carbon emissions and sequestration.”
It does not state where, when, and what kind of actions will be implemented within the huge project area, Chattooga Conservancy wrote in a statement earlier this year, and instead has deferred these specific disclosures, as well as site-specific reviews of their full environmental impacts, until later on during the project implementation phase.
These actions could include commercial logging, using herbicides and clearing land to build roads, and the organizations want to ensure the public will have input and the Forest Service will conduct further environmental review before actions like these are taken for specific sites.
Judy Toppins, a spokesperson for the Forest Service, said that there will still be ample opportunity for public comment on the plan throughout its 15-year life span.
“Once the more specific proposed management actions (specific location, acreage, activity, etc.) are determined over time (again, based on the ecological need) more public notifications will occur,” Toppins wrote in a statement. “Folks can expect to see these through updates to the schedule of proposed action (SOPA), our website, and news releases. At a minimum, the forest plans to hold an annual workshop to discuss potential activities expected within the scope, scale, and extent of this programmatic analysis.”
The Forest Service is also creating a Foothills Collaborative Group containing future stakeholders to review future decisions on the project.
“If warranted, projects will be publicly scoped and the appropriate level of additional NEPA outreach carried out if a review of conditions for those future projects results in new or changed information that differs from what was considered in this analysis,” Toppins wrote.
Toppins said they received few objections during this round of public comment, and they will enter into “objection resolution” with the relevant parties over the next two months.
The first stages of the Foothills Landscape Project is expected to begin in spring of 2022, after more than five years of planning and review.