To hellbender and back 

An expedition deep into forests untouched by man, where monsters roam and threats to wildlife abound

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Those working the streams and the seep usually find the most salamanders, which are placed in plastic bags stuffed with wet leaves and dirt so the animals are comfortable. After the half-hour, Elliott and Smith purposefully identify and count the species for each habitat, take a Global Positioning and temperature reading, put the salamanders back in their habitat and lead the crew off to a different section of the stream.

The Georgia Forest Watch survey takes place in two coves. The first survey in the first cove on the way up Lower Cynth Gap nets 32 salamanders, and six different species. No one expected to find a hellbender here; it's the wrong kind of habitat.

Hellbenders prefer deeper streams and faster running water than in the puny brook of Lower Cynth Gap cove. They're carnivorous and eat small fish and worms. But their favorite is crayfish. None of the surveyors spotted a single crayfish.

After lunch and a short hike upstream, Elliott and Smith pass out the Ziploc bags for the second survey on this stream. This time Smith says, "Go!" The hunt is on again.

One document -- 18,000 pages bound in three separate books -- will dictate the fate of the Chattahoochee National Forest for the next 15 years.

Released by the U.S Forest Service April 4, it lays out which areas of the forest will be given permanent protection from logging, which areas will be susceptible to clear cutting, and which areas will be open to four-wheel, all terrain vehicles (ATVs).

Georgia Forest Watch, which was founded after the last management plan was released in the mid-1980s, had high hopes this time around. Along with dozens of other individuals and protection groups, Georgia Forest Watch over the last seven years gave the U.S. Forest Service its suggestions for managing the Chattahoochee. And in an earlier draft hammered out last August, the Forest Service included many of the forest-friendly provisions.

For instance, under the August draft, 60,000 acres of the Chattahoochee would have been designated as wilderness areas -- the highest level of protection a forest can get. That would mean no automobiles, no ATVs, no logging. Within those acres were popular hiking destinations such as Turner Creek, Rich Mountain and Raven Cliffs. But the new plan, released last month, slashes that acreage to 8,000 acres, and leaves those tourist spots open for logging. The April plan also allows for opening 400,000 acres of the forest to four-wheelers.

But perhaps most brazenly, the new plan would allow timber companies to double the amount of wood harvested from the forest.

Consider: Between 1996 and 2002, the annual logging harvest from the Chattahoochee was anywhere from 100,000 feet of lumber to 34.9 million. The Forest Service's April plan would allow 78 million feet to be taken from the forest each year.

In a previous draft of the plan released last August, this section of the woods would have been protected as a wilderness area. But the current proposal would open up big chunks of Kelly Ridge. Why? To create a more hospitable habitat for other animals like endangered, rare and tropical birds, such as the goldenwing warbler, which thrive not in heavy forests but open areas. Of course, how that could affect other animals in the woods is one of the most debated issues among biologists.

Salamanders are the only vertebrates that regenerate limbs. Some salamanders, when chomped by a predator on the tail, will twist and flop until the thing breaks off. Scientists are trying to figure out if there's a way to replicate that regeneration trick in humans who've lost their limbs.

The hellbender's size, its smarts and its longevity make it a favorite among salamander aficionados. But it doesn't live for up to 30 years by being easy to find, as we're learning on Kelly Ridge. Our second survey nets 29 salamanders of seven different species, but none is more than 5 inches long, and none is the hellbender. The salamanders are returned to the habitat where they're found, the Ziploc bags are stuffed inside a backpack, and the expedition heads deeper into the woods.

After a grueling half-hour hike uphill, we reach Lower Cynth Gap and emerge onto what appears to be a small clear cut. Half a dozen trees lie on the ground, fallen in the same direction. The canopy above is open. The pattern of the fallen trees suggests strong winds knocked them down. So it was a clearing, yes -- but a natural one.

The expedition agrees it'd be a perfect habitat for the warbler.

Groves and Randall White, a Georgia Forest Watch board member and physician, make plans to come back in the early morning to scout for warblers.

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