Proposed efforts, including a commercial timber harvest, in the Blue Ridge Ranger District of the Gainesville-based Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest have come under fire from some environmental groups.
“We have serious concerns about the wisdom (and legality) of many aspects of this project and, to be clear, are firmly opposed to elements of it,” states a 37-page June 6 letter from Dahlonega-based Georgia ForestWatch, Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, Va., and the Decatur-based Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club.
“This project is a significant departure from other large projects ... that were less objectionable because they did not target the most biologically rich stands on the forest, as this project does, and included ecological restoration efforts.”
The area in question is the Cooper Creek Watershed, a regionally popular trout fishing spot in Union County.
The Forest Service is beginning an environmental analysis process for work tentatively scheduled to begin in 2016, including restoring native plants, enhancing wildlife habitat conditions and improving forest health.
“The main objectives of the project are to enhance wildlife habitat diversity and restore and favor native vegetation, namely oaks,” said Blue Ridge District Ranger Andy Baker.
Those would take place in several ways, including through a timber harvest, prescribed burning and other noncommercial “improvement treatments focused on increasing the health and long-term sustainability of oak and other (acorn- and nut-producing) native species,” Baker said.
The analysis area comprises 30,000 acres, or about 10 percent of the Blue Ridge District’s total 300,000 acres.
Some 2,300 acres would be for the timber harvest. Removing the majority of trees from a particular stand to regenerate an area would take place on 253 acres, Baker said.
And some 11,000 acres are proposed for understory burning “to enhance wildlife habitat and favor fire-adapted vegetation ... but less than a third of that amount would be burned in any given year depending on weather and site-specific conditions,” he said.
All the treatments would take place over at least 10 years.
Mary A. Topa, executive director of Georgia ForestWatch, said her group agrees with the need “to match objectives identified in the watershed assessment to the most ecologically appropriate portions of the project area.”
However, “it seems that in many cases, treatments have unfortunately been proposed for the most ecologically inappropriate stands,” she said.
Targeting some of the oldest oak forests — including one stand that is 164 years old — for a treatment that provides a habitat for certain wildlife by cutting the majority of trees “is a good example, particularly when there are more appropriate younger stands that would work,” Topa said.
”In addition, despite the fact that Cooper Creek has been identified as a priority watershed ... the proposed project focuses on extensive logging, which is likely to degrade, not improve, water quality and aquatic habitat here.”
An initial public comment period ended June 6 on the Forest Service proposal, but the agency’s plans are far from taking place.
“Our next step is to gather all the public comments ... and develop reasonable alternatives to the proposed action based on the issues raised (by the public),” Baker said.
“These alternatives are then analyzed as to their environmental effects in relation to” a variety of factors, including wildlife, fisheries, rare species, and recreation and scenery.
The environmental assessment could be completed within 6-12 months.
A draft report then would go back to the public “for further opportunity to comment prior to a final decision,” Baker said.