Conservation groups file suit over timber sale shrouded in Forest Service secrecy
A recent suit filed by SELC and partners alleges the U.S. Forest Service is illegally endangering the soil, forests, and waters of the Cherokee National Forest and hiding those risks from the public.
At stake is Tumbling Creek, a cold-water trout stream running through the mountains of southeast Tennessee into the Ocoee River, which is popular with local families for fishing, wading, and picnicking. Deliberately ignoring the disastrous effects of nearby timber sales on similar soils and slopes, the Forest Service recently decided to allow heavy commercial logging along the creek.
For nearly four years, conservation groups tried to dissuade the Forest Service from taking unnecessary risks on publicly-owned lands, providing pictures, examples, and monitoring data to show what could go wrong. The Forest Service, however, simply ignored their concerns, violating agency requirements to respond transparently and truthfully to citizen objections. As a result SELC, on behalf of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, and Knoxville attorney Shelby Ward, on behalf of Heartwood and Tennessee Heartwood, jointly filed the federal lawsuit last week.
“Dismissing legitimate citizen concerns is the most egregious aspect about this risky, ill-advised logging project,” said Sam Evans, staff attorney and Leader of SELC’s National Forests and Parks Program. “The public came forward and said, ‘We don’t want to see these kinds of erosion problems on our lands ever again,’ but the agency simply refuses to learn from its mistakes. They are sweeping literal dirt under the rug.”
In the 3,700-acre project area near Tumbling Creek, the Forest Service is proposing to sell 534 acres of timber for commercial logging, much of which is concentrated on steep slopes and erosive soils along a short stretch of Tumbling Creek. Conservation groups are worried that soil loss will keep trees from growing on those slopes, as was the case with a recent logging project only a dozen miles west of Tumbling Creek. Another concern is that sediment runoff will harm one of the healthiest watersheds and streams in the area.
“It’s not that we just disagree with the Cherokee National Forest leadership about this project; it’s that they refuse to consider any science or data that might require them to do things differently,” said Davis Mounger, Cofounder of Tennessee Heartwood. “This pattern of dodging our concerns has damaged the forest time after time, and they have left us with no other options.”
The Ocoee District of the Cherokee National Forest offers exceptional recreation, scenic value, and economic benefits. In addition to recreation on Tumbling Creek itself, the area boasts whitewater rafting on the Ocoee River, mountain biking on the Tanasi and Brush Creek trails, and long scenic hikes into the iconic Big Frog Wilderness.
“The public asked for a hard look at impacts from similar logging projects, without which there was too great a risk to move forward with this project as planned,” said Anne Passino, staff attorney for SELC. “The streams near Tumbling Creek are among the last clean waterways in the area–the few spared from sediment pollution–and are a special place for fisherman, local communities and families who visit this area to create memories.”
The mismanagement of comparable projects in the Cherokee National Forest containing similar slopes with erosive soils have left mountainsides barren, stripped of topsoil, and, as a result, unable to support native plant and animal life. The impacts to hunting, fishing, and other recreational opportunities hurt local economies in surrounding communities. Then, when the Forest Service does attempt to remediate damaged areas, it uses taxpayer money that could be better spent on maintaining roads and trails for access to public lands.
Local citizens have consistently attempted to raise awareness around disastrous timber sales in the past and have condemned the taxpayer dollars wasted trying to remediate them. These same citizens are now being ignored and shut out of the planning process for future logging projects, creating a dangerous lack of transparency,