Completion of a study of the Chattahoochee National Forests’ road system has been slowed by a leadership change in the Gainesville-based Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests.
The previous U.S. Forest Service supervisor, George Bain, who had been named 2012 Federal Land Manager of the Year, left soon after the award in October to take a director’s position in Montana, said Judy Toppins, spokeswoman for Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests.
“We’re hoping to have a new forest supervisor by the end of the spring,” she said. “These are big decisions and we’re waiting to have our forest leadership in place before we move forward with results of the study.”
Study results now could be released in the summer, Toppins said.
After a public input process last spring, the Forest Service embarked on a process to examine its road network in the Chattahoochee National Forest, as part of a nationwide initiative, with all national forests completing studies by 2015.
The studies aim to identify roads “needed for safe and efficient travel and for the protection, management and use of national forests,” according to Forest Service officials.
“At the same time, the studies offer an opportunity to identify roads that are no longer needed.”
According to officials, the number of overdue road maintenance projects is growing.
Roads that need work not only are dangerous to visitors, but they also can threaten forest health by increasing runoff into rivers and streams, degrading water quality and harming fish and wildlife, officials have said.
The government’s efforts have drawn praise from environmentalists and others.
Larry Winslett, a Dahlonega resident and member of the Georgia Sierra Club, has said the work is “long overdue.”
“Some of the roads for recreational purposes need to definitely stay open and be maintained so the public can have access,” he said. “There’s also some lesser-used roads, some that are in really bad shape and ... need to be closed.”
In an email last week, he said Sierra Club “concerns have not changed.”
“As before, we are also concerned as to whether the Forest Service has the budget to properly maintain all of (the roads),” Winslett said. “Enforcement of illegal use is also still a serious concern.”
Some possible options that may be considered in the transportation study include:
Maintaining roads at current standards;
Changing the level of access from passenger cars to high-clearance vehicles;
Adding new or tighter seasonal restrictions;
Changing management jurisdiction;
And implementing yearlong closures and removing some roads entirely.
Proposed changes would first be vetted through the federal National Environmental Policy Act, a long-standing law that requires government to consider environmental impacts when undertaking a project or action.
“And then there would be public opportunities for comment, and all that,” Toppins said.
“Just as soon as we have the results, we’ll have the maps to share, just like we did before (the study began), showing what the vision would be,” she added.
“There is no list of roads that are closing. The public will have the opportunity to comment before any decisions are made,” Toppins said.