Southern exposure

Forest Service leaves Chattahoochee National Forest vulnerable

The U.S. Forest Service is drastically changing the way it manages the Chattahoochee National Forest — and forest lovers are livid. Plans released on April 4 propose opening up more than half of the forest's 749,000 acres to all-terrain vehicles, and would allow timber harvesting to double.

These so-called management techniques are outlined in the U.S. Forest Service's land management plan, the document that dictates which areas of the Chattahoochee National Forest will be given permanent protection from logging, which areas will be open to clear cutting, and which areas will allow four-wheelers to cut and crush the forest floor.

Environmentalists, hunters and naturalists from Georgia and across the Southeast Appalachians are incensed with the U.S. Forest Service for weakening its protections of the forest and for ignoring seven years worth of input that they've given the drafters of the plan.

The plan's contents have escalated the fight to protect the national forest into Georgia's version of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge battle.

In the case of North Georgia's pristine woods, though, money is made from commercial logging, the revenue from which is the largest portion of the Forest Service's budget. Between 1996 and 2002, the Forest Service sold between 400,000 feet of lumber and 34.9 million feet per year, which generated about $18 million for the Forest Service. The proposed plans would allow 78 million feet of lumber to be cut down and sold to loggers each year.

Federal law says the Forest Service has to update its intentions and priorities for the national forest every 15 years. The current proposals will be finalized after the public is allowed a 90-day comment period that ends July 3.

Few environmentalists would say that the Chattahoochee National Forest has ever enjoyed strong protections from logging.

But the new plan — published in three separate books, each at least two inches thick — leaves the forest more vulnerable than it's ever been, at a time when it faces the greatest threats since being created by Congress in 1891. Atlanta's sprawl is knocking on the forest borders, rural mountain towns are pushing for economic development, and thrill-seeking ATV drivers have caused more than $1 million in trail and undergrowth damage this year alone.

Currently ATVs are allowed on only 130 miles of trails in the Chattahoochee National Forest, and on 270 miles of county roads that run through the forest.

The proposals could open 400,000 acres to four-wheelers.

Critics of the plan are even more outraged that the current proposals are nothing like the drafts last seen in August 2002, which were hammered out after seven years of collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service and dozens of individuals and forest protection groups.

Brent Martin, executive director of Ellijay-based Georgia ForestWatch, spent seven years making sure the Forest Service's plan was a good one. In that time, he attended dozens of public meetings and spoke often with forest service employees developing the plan.

"For the plan to supposedly be the result of seven years of public involvement is a betrayal, it's a slap in the face," Martin says. "To say that a public process is how this plan got here is a lie."

For two-and-a-half years, he and other employees of Georgia Forest Watch surveyed old-growth forests (groups of trees more than 120 years old) and gave the data to the Forest Service. Martin was horrified when those old-growth areas were included in sections of the forest potentially opened up for logging.

The earlier draft also proposed to designate 60,000 more acres as wilderness areas, which is the highest level of protection national forest lands can get. Those areas included popular destinations such as Turner Creek, Rich Mountain and Raven Cliffs. It would mean no clear-cutting, no logging and no ATV trails. There are now 117,000 acres under wilderness protection.

But in the current proposal, none of those areas would get wilderness protection, and the total has dropped from 60,000 to a mere 8,000 acres.

Kate Smolski of the Georgia Sierra Club calls that minimal amount of protection "ridiculous."

Jackie Dobrinska, spokeswoman for the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, has studied the Forest Service's plans for five different national parks in the Southeast. "Out of all of them, the Chattahoochee is the least protective."

Meanwhile, Karen McKenzie, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service called the forest management plan — an oxymoron if there ever was one — a "blueprint for improving forest health," during a public meeting in Gainesville April 19.

And at the meeting she and other Forest Service officials boasted about how much public input it gathered when devising the plan.

One spokeswoman, Angela Coleman, says, "There's probably been no other document that incorporates as much public comment as this one."

When asked about the drastic difference between the current proposal and the version from last year, David Smith, who supervises the plan's development, says, "We told them all along that there would be changes."

To that, Martin says, "That's absolutely not true. Dave can say what he wants, but we were told almost up until the day the plan was released that very little would change."

Martin and others are now focused on putting protections back into the plan before it's finalized and implemented. The Forest Service is once again accepting comments and recommendations from the public until July 3.

The Forest Service's only Atlanta-area public meeting is slated for May 17 at the Gwinnett Civic & Cultural Center. However, no comments from the public at the meeting will be considered for the final draft.

To be considered, comments must be mailed to the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests Contents Analysis Team, Box 221150, Salt Lake City, Utah, 84122. They can also be e-mailed to Chattahoochee-oconee@fs.fed.us.