The future of the Chattahoochee National Forest can be found in a 200-page report recently released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. It’s an extensive plan that proposes everything from the creation of new trails on Bull Mountain to the clear cut logging of 1,700 wooded acres.
However, the planning process is far from over.
On Thursday evening officials from the USDA Forest Service were on hand at the Lumpkin County Parks & Rec. meeting room to discuss these potential changes as they released the findings of the environmental assessment report which will impact a proposed 157,625 acres of the National Forest.
“There’s still a long way to go,” said Stephanie Israel, Forest Service team leader for the project. “But we’re at a really big milestone so we just want to celebrate that a little.”
The project’s stated mission is “to create, restore and maintain ecosystems that are more resilient to natural disturbances.”
“Really the Foothills project was about creating healthy forest that’s diverse, that’s sustainable for recreation for the communities in north Georgia and we had all these community conversations to really tease out what people wanted,” Jewett said. “And those four things, enhanced wildlife habitat, healthy resilient forests, improved soil and water quality and sustainable recreation opportunities, those were the things that we heard loud and clear during the community conversations that people wanted from this project.”
The Foothills Landscape Project is significantly larger than most of the projects the Forest Service has taken on in Georgia, which Jewett says is by design.
“We wanted to try and think and act differently from what we’ve done in the past so we are trying to do work more efficiently with the scale of this project,” she said. “On average, most of our environmental assessments, we cover maybe 10,000 acres of the assessment area and that’s about two to three years’ worth of implementation work. I want to reverse that. I want to change it, I want to flip it. I want to be able to do the environmental assessment work on a larger scale. Take three and a half years to do it and then have 10 to 15 of implementation.”
BIG FOREST, BIG PLAN
Striving for maximum efficiency is the right move to some.
“It’s really interesting to find out that it’s really just a really large plan and what they’re looking to do is to not spend so much time planning,” said Lumpkin local Zachery Baum. “Now, instead of having to build a new plan for every single place that they’re going to go, they have condition-based options that they can look at for each specific place that they’re going to go, which sounds smart to me.”
Yet for others, this tactic raises concerns that the forest service will attempt to meet the needs of the forest with one-size-fits-all solutions instead of picking the right resolution for each scenario.
“[We’re concerned] if areas that are special in the landscape are receiving adequate protection, which is hard to figure out with this new approach of describing the kinds of places where work is going to be done, without identifying the specific location” Jess Riddle, executive director of ForestWatch.
Some of the components of the project include:
• Designating an additional 5,050 acres of old growth forest across the landscape
• Adding up to 50,000 acres to controlled fire treatment areas
• Resetting conditions of 1,700 acres through clear-cut logging
• Thinning overcrowded tree growth
• Creating new trails or rerouting existing trails including Lumpkin County’s Jake and Bull Mountains
• Decommissioning little-used trails and campgrounds including camping sites at Lumpkin County’s Boggs Creek
• Implementation of the project would be spread over 10-15 years, which if passed, would likely begin in 2020
The decision to clear-cut 1,700 acres of the landscape was among Riddle’s other concerns with the project.
“We see a lot of good goals that the forest service has, but we also have concerns about how they’re getting to some of those goals,” he said. “For instance, some of the treatments designed to regenerate oaks and pines, it’s a good thing to be working on, we think it could be done in a less impactful way, say repeated prescribed fires rather than logging operations that are going to create roads that will disrupt water flow and cause erosion for years and loch landings that will destroy the soil. There’s some concerns about how much herbicides are being used also, that’s another big concern.”
Jewett said she is aware of the impact of her role as the responsible official regarding this project.
“I know that the decisions I make here affect all of you guys and I take that into consideration very strongly,” she said. “When I make these decisions I know that it will have an impact over the next 10, 15, 20, really 100 years, so I don’t make these decisions lightly.”
On the recreation side, the project looks to make strides to improve the visitors’ experiences by enhancing existing trails and campsites that are used heavily while closing those that are not rarely used and no longer sustainable.
“We don’t have any specific proposals in any specific campground, but we are going to look at the conditions in areas that make sense, like perhaps Lake Winfield Scott,” Kyle Grambley, the forest’s Recreation Program Manager, said. “It’s a family campground, it’s highly developed, we have one or two sites that are electric, we’re thinking about adding more electric sites, because that’s what we’re hearing the public wants. So we’re going to make some enhancements, but then there might be another campground that gets very little use, like Boggs Creek or Oakey Mountain, and we’re going to completely decommission so then we’re going to remove all of that infrastructure.”
Lumpkin County’s Boggs Creek was closed to overnight camping due to damage from a tornado and never reopened.
But while old favorites are being shut down, the project promises new trails and campsites as well as enhancing existing sites. This would likely include enhancements to Jake and Bull Mountains in Lumpkin County.
“We don’t have a lot of hard proposals, but basically we just want to make investments in areas that have high resource protection and high visitors’ satisfaction,” Grambley said. “We’re proposing reroutes to properly layout trails because we realize that a lot of our trails go straight up a ridgeline and we don’t want that because it causes erosion and it’s not fun to hike quite honestly. So we want to make the trails more sustainable and more-friendly layouts.”
This week marks the beginning of the 30-day comment period, where anyone can submit their comments about the proposed project and the environmental assessment for review. (Comments can be sent to email@example.com)
The full environmental assessment was posted for the public on Monday, Dec. 2. The assessment is over 200 pages long, and doesn’t include the other more specific reports that can be found under the Analysis tab of the site.
“The public comment period on this project is about to start and the forest service has their environmental assessment and then they have specialist reports also,” Riddle said. “Those total slightly over a thousand pages and we think that the public should have more than 30 days to look at that.”
Jewett encourages anyone who has a thought or comment on the project to engage with them, and not just during the comment period.
“Even after this comment period has ended after the first of January, we still encourage people to engage with us, she said. “We’re still open to that engagement, to please stay in contact and communications with us. This is just an official administrative process. Comment, [because] we want to hear from you now, but then stay engaged with us even after that 30-day comment period.”
As for Baum, who was attending his first-ever meeting, he was impressed with the engagement with those making these decisions.
“You can show up and you can talk to them about what’s going on and they’re going to have proposals as to what is happening in your specific area for those specific spaces that they’re working at, at that time,” he said.