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The rest talk excitedly. If the Forest Service knows about this, then maybe they'd put Kelly Ridge back on the protected list.
Of course, the discovery also makes us worry that the Forest Service hasn't even surveyed the lands that they've put on the chopping block.
The expedition moves on.
Pressure to open up more of the Chattahoochee National Forest to logging has come from many corners. In Towns County, where Kelly Ridge is located, county commissioners passed a resolution last winter demanding that no more wilderness areas be set aside.
Pushing for the resolution was the Georgia chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society. Bill Cunningham, the society's volunteer president, explains that birds such as the warbler and the grouse need more open spaces to thrive. Declaring more acres protected from logging will keep those spaces from opening up.
"A lot of the wildlife does benefit from the activities of logging," he says.
Cunningham traveled to four mountain counties on his lobbying trip. With him was Bill Fletcher, supervisor for the northeast region of the state Department of Natural Resources. Fletcher also asked the four counties to fight the wilderness designation.
"We feel there is enough wilderness on the Chattahoochee at this time," Fletcher says. Restricting all logging is going too far. "You may want to actually manipulate some habitats to benefit some particular species."
Right now, open spaces are "dwindling because there's absolutely no timber being cut right now," Fletcher says. And Mother Nature isn't clearing out much of the forest, meaning man has to step in.
"We need to have the flexibility to make [open spaces]," Fletcher says.
Cunningham also shrewdly appealed to county commissioners' disdain for outsiders by telling them what to do in their own back yard. The resolution urged federal officials to "stand firm" against forces outside the county that have "exercised undue influence through the use of appeals, protests and litigation."
Cunningham himself is from Forsyth County.
But perhaps the strongest argument the resolution posed against more wilderness designations was an economic one. Average personal income in Towns County is just $22,091, according to the University of Georgia's 2002 Georgia County Guide, more than $7,000 below the national average. And the county has faced some especially tough times in recent years. In the spring of 2001, the Elan Water Bottling Plant in neighboring Union County closed, putting 50 people out of work. When the E.J. Footwear plant closed in March 2002, another 80 people lost their jobs -- even before that, the workforce at the shoe factory was cut from 300. When Home Depot opened in Union County in early 2002, 1,300 people applied for jobs at a store that now employs about 150.
And that was before the recent closing of the nearby Levi-Strauss plants in Murphy, N.C., and Blue Ridge cost 823 workers their jobs.
To commissioners, fencing off more of their county to any outside influence means blocking economic development. And they'll certainly get no argument from the timber industry. Since 1986, logging has claimed 591 million feet of timber from the national forest. No one knows for sure how many acres that translates into: the Forest Service only measures deforestation in terms of feet of wood harvested. However, we know that an acre of old-growth, virgin trees can net 30,000 feet of lumber, and a stand of trees each a foot in diameter averages 8,000 feet of lumber per acre.
With that range, loggers have claimed between 19,700 acres and 73,875 acres -- that's not counting the trees that were cut down for the roads that were built to get to the clear-cuts.
It should be noted that the largest portion of the U.S. Forest Service's budget comes from granting logging rights; in the case of the Chattahoochee, the agency made $18 million between 1996 and 2002.
The incline of Rattlesnake Knob is so steep, so perilous, that when walking west, counter-clockwise around its north face, my left foot hits the ground at least a full foot higher than the right. A slight slip could lead to a 40-foot tumble. The expedition stops three times to rest or let others catch up.
But it's worth it. Entering an old-growth forest is like walking back through time. Because of the steepness, and the thinner than usual layer of rich, black soil that covers the solid rock that makes up the Appalachians, the trees of the virgin forest on Rattlesnake Knob aren't much thicker than the rest of the forest. Yet, there is an undeniable "oldness" to it. The bark on the trees is thicker and gray, as if the moss and mold were trying their best to give the trees a wise old gentlemen's beard. They are, after all, between 300 and 400 years old, according to core samples taken months earlier.
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