Good news for Chattahoochee Forest

Bush administration won't revoke key protections — for now

Back in July, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture proposed revoking the guaranteed protections that keep loggers and four-wheeling enthusiasts out of the most pristine areas of the country's national forests. Nationwide, 58.5 million acres would be affected.

The proposal sought to modify what's called the "Roadless Rule." Under the change, protections from road-building would no longer be automatic. Instead, governors would have to request the stronger protection. That means Gov. Sonny Perdue would be allowed to decide whether the timber industry and ATVers could have access to untouched sections of the Chattahoochee National Forest, a prospect plenty of conservationists find discomforting.

So far, about 72,780 Georgians and 2.5 million people nationwide have written the U.S. Forest Service and complained about the changes to the Roadless Rule.

The proposed changes are but the latest blow to the North Georgia forest. In January, the U.S. Forest Service refused to extend its highest level of protections to two areas of the Chattahoochee — Kelly Ridge and Mountaintown — despite a massive outpouring of public comment in favor of the protections. At the same time, the Forest Service declared 461,000 acres of the 749,000-acre North Georgia forest "suitable" for logging and off-road vehicles.

The string of pro-logging proposals have outraged environmentalists, and they've responded by bombarding the U.S. Forest Service and the White House with comments condemning the change to the Roadless Rule.

It seems those letters have worked, to an extent. The Bush administration responded by extending the comment period on the Roadless Rule change an additional two months. It now ends in November — 13 days after the presidential election.

And in celebration of the anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act, the Bush administration proposed giving 8,000 acres in the Chattahoochee National Forest the highest level of protection that national forest land can receive. Kelly Ridge and Mountaintown, home to two of the last old-growth forests in the state, were not among those 8,000 acres.

Some conservationists took Bush's pro-environment moves with a dose of skepticism.

"The timing of this 8,000-acre proposal is ironic when the Bush administration is repealing the guaranteed protections that 64,000 acres of roadless areas in the Chattahoochee now enjoy," says Colleen Kiernan, a conservation organizer with the Sierra Club.

The Forest Service is accepting public comment on the change to the Roadless Rule until Nov. 15. E-mail comments to statepetitionroadless@fs.fed.gov.

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