The USFS will be accepting objections from the public in regards to a proposal called the Southside Project that aims to create young forest growth or early successional habitat, on lands within the Nantahala Ranger District through vegetation management. Groups like the Chattooga Conservancy oppose this action and urge the public to reach out to the Forest Service and voice their objections.
“This is our last chance to try and reshape the trajectory of the project to be more in line with conserving biological diversity,” said Nicole Hayler, executive director of the Chattooga Conservancy.
The Conservancy has a number of concerns about the project including cutting down old growth trees, the use of herbicide, harming the habitat of endangered species like the green salamander and possibly disqualifying areas eligible for protection by being designated as Wilderness, said Hayler. She added that areas like Bull Pen, Granite City, Chattooga Headwaters, Ellicott Rock and Terrapin Mountain will be negatively impacted if the project moves forward.
The Southside Project was first proposed last year. The USFS modified the original plan after the first public comment period. The Conservancy’s concerns come on the heels after the USFS released a draft decision notice in July, 2018 informing the public of the revised plan.
Those with objections to the revised plan have until Aug. 27 to contact the USFS. USFS District Ranger Mike Wilkins said that after the objection deadline passes the USFS will meet with each objector and try to reach a resolution. However, only those who commented on a previous issue during the first comment period may submit an objection, said Wilkins.
“After the first public comment period we dropped a couple of proposed stands for cutting and modified some boundaries,” said Wilkins. “If we have some objections we’ll sit down with the objectors and hopefully modify the plan.”
Hayler said those modifications to the plan are minimal.
“The Forest Service has largely ignored their citizens’ input saying their scientists said this plan will not have an impact,” she said. “Very little has changed. It’s essentially the same as the original proposal.”
In terms of the concerns the Conservancy has towards the project, Wilkins said many of the community’s assumptions aren’t accurate.
“First off, we are not proposing any activities in the Chattooga Wild and Scenic Corridor, and we are not doing anything in Ellicott Rock Wilderness,” said Wilkins. “We are not looking to harvest old growth. We are harvesting some old trees and there is one stand on the verge of being classified as old growth.”
He added that the USFS and the state have different boundaries for two different areas each named Granite City. The USFS designates this area as Special Management Area, the state designates it as Natural Heritage Area. Wilkins said there will be no activity in either Granite Cities within the state and USFS boundaries.
Buzz Williams, member of Chattooga Conservancy Board of Directors said he went out to two of the stands planned for activity with some student researchers from the Highlands Biological Station to determine whether they were old growth. He said their conclusion was that they are indeed old growth, which he added the USFS initially classified one of the stands as not old growth.
“The Forest Service had to admit that one stand met the criteria for old growth,” said Williams. “They finally agreed with the students’ conclusion. The students studied it intently using Forest Service criteria.”
Wilkins said one of the purposes of this project is to establish early successional habitat because 75 percent of the forest is considered old, but Williams said old growth trees create their own early successional habitat.
“They should leave it alone,” he said. “They’re just meeting their timber quota and creating tree farms. That’s all their doing.”
Wilkins said the Nantahala Ranger District has a botanist, wildlife biologist and fisheries biologist on staff who were all in support of this project as there would not be a negative impact on the area that encompasses approximately 19,000 square miles. In the most recent plan 196 acres will be targeted for regeneration activity.
“Our goal is to have an environment with some new trees,” said Wilkins. “We have plenty of old, what we need is the young.”
Wilkins said he has been told by the public that the USFS needs to stop clear cutting trees.
“We are not clear-cutting anything,” said Wilkins. “We leave 10 to 20 trees per acre to begin a second generation of trees. This is good for the habitat.”
He added that factors of old growth criteria include age, size and down woody (fallen debris).
A year after the trees are cut down several sprouts begin to grow on the stumps. Wilkins said the plan is to apply herbicide to the stems of those sprouts to prevent multiple sprouts growing off of a single stump.
The Conservancy released a statement that alleges that the Southside Project will result in “massive herbicide poisoning of the forest with chemicals deemed carcinogenic by the World health Organization.”
Hayler said exposure to these chemicals could lead to cancer. However, Wilkins said the application process is precisely targeted.
“It’s not an aerial distribution (of herbicide),” said Wilkins. “It’s applied directly to the stem and the Forest Service has a history of using this herbicide and it is safe.”
Eligible Wilderness Designation
Hayler said both Terrapin Mountain and an extension of Ellicott Rock are under consideration to be protected by the Wilderness designation and she is concerned this project may derail the designation process.
“Anything that disqualifies those areas from being designated as wilderness would prematurely conclude the ongoing process of the Nantahala/Pisgah forest plan,” said Hayler.
To submit your objection mail Mike Wilkins, District Ranger, Nantahala National Forest, 90 Sloan Rd., Franklin, N.C. 28734 or fax to 828-837-8510.