WASHINGTON, DC–The U.S. Forest Service has at the last minute authorized changes to forest plans allowing potentially significant timber production on five national forests in the Southern Appalachians, according to internal agency documents released today by three environmental groups. The move reverses years of planning and citizen involvement in the South that resulted in a management scheme that would allow logging only as a byproduct of managing for other values such as wildlife habitat and recreation.
The revelation comes just a few months after the agency released for public comment its official management plans touting environmental restoration for the roughly 3 million acres of public land in the five forests. Under the secret proposal, the Southern Region of the USFS is allowing individual forests to decide whether to designate areas of the national forests specifically and primarily for timber production.
“It is a classic bait-and-switch, telling citizens one thing but planning something entirely different,” said Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). “This Administration keeps touting ‘healthy forests’ but these plans show what they really mean is ‘healthy tree farms.'”
“This behind-closed-doors decision is irresponsible and illegal,” said Doug Ruley, attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC).
In briefing papers stamped “Not Releasable,” the Forest Service regional leadership team decided in early August to allow individual forests to designate lands where the primary emphasis would be “the purposeful growing, tending, harvesting, and regeneration of regulated crops of trees…” This is a dramatic departure from the draft management plans issued by the Forest Service this spring for citizen comment, in which logging would only be a byproduct of other management activities.
The secret plan comes on the heels of a “whistleblower” disclosure filed in June by archaeologist Quentin Bass, a 20-year employee of the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee who charged the agency with illegally suppressing its own ecological records from nearly a century ago. Those records show that the Southern Appalachians were once dominated by relatively stable forest ecosystems, with trees 300 years old and more. In the draft management plans, the agency ignored these findings, which contradict the intensive logging and prescribed burns it intends for the five national forests–the Cherokee (TN), Chattahoochee/Oconee (GA), Jefferson (VA), Sumter (SC) and Talladega and Bankhead (AL).
PEER, which is representing Bass in the whistleblower disclosure, jointly released the internal papers along with SELC and the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition (SAFC).
The Southern Appalachian mountains are among the most biologically diverse regions in the world outside of the tropics, containing more tree species than all of Europe and hundreds of native animals from black bear to the cerulean warbler–many of which are rare or endangered. The national forests in the region are among the nation’s highest in terms of recreation use. Over the course of drafting the management plans, the Forest Service has consistently acknowledged that these biological and recreation values were of primary importance, and that unlike many other national forests, timber production would be only a “byproduct” of managing for these other values.
“We have been told for seven years that the guiding principle was environmental restoration,” said Hugh Irwin of SAFC. “To reverse these principles at the end of the planning process, outside of the public view, is a betrayal of the public trust.”
Irwin noted that the agency’s stated goals for these management plans were watershed health, recreation, ecosystem sustainability, wildlife habitat, recovery of threatened and endangered species, old-growth forests, and remote recreation opportunities.
SELC attorney Ruley said the Forest Service’s 11th-hour change violates the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires a thorough environmental review and full public involvement before making changes of this magnitude. “The Forest Service has to tell the public what the environmental impacts of this change would be and allow citizens to have their say,” said Ruley.