Southside Project decision being finalized

For almost four years the US Forest Service has been discussing and tweaking its plans to implement the Southside Project in Whiteside Cove that straddles Macon and Jackson counties east of Highlands.

The purpose of the Southside Project, which involves 29,090 acres is to thin old growth areas to spur new growth. New growth will make the forest more resilient and sustainable by improving breeding and foraging habitat for wildlife by incorporating young trees in the 0-10 year age class that currently makes up only 1% of the project area.

Young forest habitat provides food and cover for a diversity of wildlife including bats, ruffed grouse and pollinators.  Many species of wildlife need young forest to complete their life cycles, including some that also depend on older forest habitat.

A diversity of tree ages also helps maintain healthy forests that are more resilient in the face of forest pests and changing climate, says the USFS.

With the majority of trees in the nearly 19,000 acres in the project’s analysis area at 80 years and older, the USFS says there is a need to establish additional young forest and that’s where the Southside Project comes in.

Granite City in the Nantahala National Forest is one of the areas being discussed in the Southside Project.

Commercial timber harvesting and silvicultural treatments will be used to thin old growth areas while controlling wooly vines. Eliminating the vines will release oaks and hickories to ensure acorn and nut production in the regenerating stands, control non-native invasive species, prolong grass and brushy habitat on temporary roads and skid trails for wildlife and will rehabilitate wildlife openings.

In addition, existing wildlife openings, log lands and roadsides will be planted with native nectar and pollen producing species.

According to the USFS, old life forest conditions – about 37% of the area – will persist across the Southside Project area into the future.

The USFS says in about 10 years, about 11,000 acres in the Southside Project area will be 100 years or older moving toward what it considers “true old growth” which ranges from 240-348 years old for oaks and 225-400 years old for other forest types.

Now, the four-year discussion is coming to an end.

In 2015-’16 an informal dialogue began between the USFS and environmental and wildlife groups as well as the state’s game commission.

Interested parties were invited to provide input about the Southside Project regarding the areas targeted and the way the project would be implemented.

An official input period was opened in February 2017 and in March 2017 the USFS met with the Chattooga Conservancy to discuss specifics.

Granite City is a popular area to hike in the Nantahala National Forest.

The Chattooga Conservancy’s mission is to protect, promote and restore the natural ecological integrity of the Chattooga River watershed ecosystems; to ensure the viability of native species in harmony with the need for a healthy human environment; and to educate and empower communities to practice good stewardship on public and private lands.

Following the discussion with the Chattooga Conservancy, a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) was given to the public and comments were solicited in February 2018.

On July 11, 2018, USFS District Manager Mike Wilkins circulated a Decisional EA and a Draft Decision. Then based on input from the community and various groups, Forest Supervisor Hurston Nicholas held an objection resolution meeting Nov. 1, 2018 where more issues brought forth by the community were considered.

Now, within a week’s time, Wilkins is in the process of drafting and signing his decision which will be final.

According to the USFS, concerns were heard and consequently the initial scope of the Southside Project was altered – though according to Nicole Hayler, executive director of the Chattooga Conservancy, not enough has changed and the USFS is using “doublespeak” to trick people into thinking changes are meaningful.

“Designated old growth and existing old growth are not the same thing but the USFS is using those terms interchangeably,” she said. “True old growth is only ½% to 1% in the targeted area.  For instance, they are claiming the area on Brushy Mountain is old growth and therefore targeted and it’s not.”

The amount of old growth forest in the Nantahala National Forest needs clarification say those opposed to the Southside Project.

She said the “old growth” discussion needs clarification.

“We are disagreeing with the analysis of old growth,” said Hayler. “The USFS is claiming Granite City and Brushy Face are old growth and therefore parts will be harvested. We say they aren’t old growth and therefore shouldn’t be harvested. Furthermore, we believe old growth connectivity is important. The USFS needs to preserve rare resources on public lands and connect these old growth patches.”

There are also issues concerning the green salamander habitat.

“There is overwhelming scientific opinion that what the USFS is doing to protect and save the green salamander populations that have been found isn’t enough,” she said.

In response, USFS Forest Supervisor Hurston Nicholas said 37% – 6,944 acres – has been set aside as designated old growth and will continue to be managed as such into the future.

As to green salamanders, recommendations for protection of green salamander habitat, based on best available science, is to include a 100-meter buffer around documented locations. This buffer was applied to documented locations within the treatment areas previously.

Furthermore, based on a new survey from the NCWRC biologist in October 2018, additional green salamanders were located.

The USFS says these occurrences were in the same area as a previously documented green salamander that were found in November 2017 and demonstrate that the population of green salamanders in the area is more robust than previously identified.

Consequently, an additional 100-meter buffer will be applied around the newly documented locations.

Nicholas said he has instructed District Ranger Wilkins to modify the last decision notice to include additional buffers around all documented locations of green salamanders.

Additional clarifying edits to the EA include recognition that a unit previously considered for harvesting/treatment next to the Whitewater River which is being considered for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Systems will be handled with the utmost care to sustain the “outstandingly remarkable values and free flowing nature of the river.”

Wilkins said the USFS has listened to concerns and between the Draft EA February 2018 and the Decisional EA of July 2018, he has dropped old growth stands from the plan – a total of 29 acres – and has dropped an additional 19-acre stand proposed for thinning.

He expects to sign the final decision by Friday this week or the beginning of next week and work will begin immediately.

Hayler said the Chattooga Conservancy will look at the issues outlined in the final decision and will consider filing a lawsuit against the USFS concerning its stance on old growth clarification as well as the green salamander habitats.

  • By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

Photos by Brian O’Shea
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