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ATLANTA, Ga.–The U.S. Forest Service now admits that its own “ecologists and experts agree that the historic data” uncovered by a Cherokee National Forest whistleblower is “credible” and “support his claims” that substantial portions of the Southern Appalachian forests should not be subject to large-scale logging and prescribed burns, according to an agency press release. Nonetheless, the agency says that roughly 1.5 million acres of public land in five states will continue to be intensively managed for at least the next 10 to 15 years.

On June 13, Quentin Bass, a 20-year agency archaeologist, filed a federal whistleblower disclosure charging that the Forest Service illegally ignored its own ecological records from nearly a century ago that contradict the intensive logging and burning proposed for vast areas in the Cherokee (TN), Chattahoochee/Oconee (GA), Jefferson (VA), Sumter (SC) and Talladega and Bankhead (AL) national forests.

“The point is that the Forest Service suppressed its own records, not whether those records fit into the government’s idea of the scientific ‘mainstream’,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who is representing Bass. “The Forest Service is legally obligated to reflect all valid viewpoints and not select the one it likes best.”

“The issue of how to manage our national forests is of tremendous public interest and debate, no matter what side you’re on. The Forest Service has no business suppressing information that has a direct bearing on that debate,” said SELC attorney Doug Ruley, who is representing the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition and the Cherokee Forest Voices on the disclosure.

In a press release issued June 19, the Southern Regional Office of the Forest Service publicly concedes that half of the forest acreage covered by the five draft management plans–approximately 1.5 million acres–would be subject to “intensive forest management.” In defending its actions regarding the Bass disclosure, the agency says in the release that it used only “widely accepted, peer reviewed science” in formulating the plans.

“The Forest Service failed to subject key elements of the Southern Appalachian forest plans to peer review, which is precisely why it failed to reflect a range of viewpoints,” said Hugh Irwin of SAFC. “Some of the most debatable items in the plans, including viability analysis for the hundreds of rare plants and animals found in the region’s national forests, was not subject to peer review. This viability analysis was build on the faulty even-aged model of forest ecosystems that Quentin Bass’s materials contradict.”

The records unearthed by Bass show the Southern Appalachian forests were once dominated by tall, old trees, some 300 years old or more, indicating a relatively stable ecosystem. The information counters the Forest Service’s long-standing assertion that the forests require large-scale logging and prescribed burns to mimic natural conditions that generate an “early successional,” even-aged forest.

The agency only briefly mentions the historic information in the draft plan for the Cherokee National Forest, and ignores it entirely in the draft plans for the other four Southern Appalachian forests. The disclosure states this exclusion violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act, the Data Quality Act and the agency’s own procedures.

The public comment period on the Forest Service plans for the Southern Appalachian forests closes on July 3.

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