Naturally, a lot of people -- about 12,800 -- were unhappy with the idea of opening up half of the forest to clear cuts and four wheelers, and they told the Forest Service so. About 8,800 of the 12,800 comments were form letters and comment cards provided by eco groups such as the Sierra Club. The rest were handwritten letters.
The Forest Service is supposed to take the feedback it gets from the public and incorporate it into the final draft of the forest plan, which, when enacted, dictates what does or doesn't happen within the forest for at least a decade. The plan is important for several reasons. It sets the limit of how much wood can be harvested by timber companies, and establishes the level of protection for every acre in the forest.
But judging from the final draft of the plan, released two weeks ago, the Forest Service hardly noticed the public's letters.
The final draft says 461,000 acres of the entire forest are suitable for logging and off-road vehicles. That's 106,000 more acres than the previous draft allowed.
By expanding the logging acreage, the Forest Service has opened up bigger chunks of the forest to timber companies, which equates to more logging roads. Roads are as bad as clear cuts because they expose topsoil that muddies up waterways when it rains.
The plan extends no additional protections to the watersheds of the Etowah and Conasauga rivers, which are the headwaters of several sources for the region's drinking supply. Those rivers are also home to species of fish and mussels that aren't found anywhere else in the world.
The Forest Service did add to the final draft surveys conducted by Georgia Forest Watch of two old-growth forests, one on Kelly Ridge and the other near Mountaintown. The first draft didn't acknowledge that there were any old-growth woods in those areas.
The final draft recognizes 2,700 acres in those spots as old growth, but it doesn't say that those areas won't be cut or turned into a four-wheelers playground. Those areas are among the 461,000 acres of the forest that are suitable for logging and off-road vehicles. "Suitable" doesn't mean the area will be cut -- only that it could be. The designation also allows timber roads to be cleared in the area, and off-road vehicles are permitted.
"This plan has loopholes big enough to drive trucks through, that's the concern," says Debbie Royston, executive director of Georgia Forest Watch. The Forest Service "can say, for example, that they aren't planning on building any permanent roads. But the truth is the plan doesn't limit temporary road construction at all. And the previous plan didn't have any provisions in it about off-road vehicles and ATVs. But our preliminary analysis shows the new plan allows ATV traffic in almost 80 percent of the forest."
Georgia Forest Watch, the Sierra Club and other conservation groups will likely fight to keep the plan from being implemented in its current form. They'll likely appeal the plan before April. And if that doesn't work, both groups have lawyers who've sued the Forest Service before -- and won.
A spokeswoman for the Forest Service did not return phone calls by the time Creative Loafing went to press.
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