Prime Wildlife Habitat in Tennessee Spared under Agreement Between Conservation Groups and U.S. Forest Service
Conservation groups have withdrawn their challenge of a large timber sale that the U.S. Forest Service was planning in the north section of the Cherokee National Forest after reaching an agreement (pdf) with the agency sparing the most vulnerable ecosystems and critical wildlife habitat. The Forest Service has agreed not to log about 122 acres in the Laurel Mountain area (in the Nolichucky/ Unaka Ranger District), and the conservation groups dropped their administrative challenge of the remaining logging yesterday.
“This win-win ensures that the most vital resources in the Big Creek watershed will be spared while the Forest Service proceeds with the rest of its timber sale as planned. The agency has proved to be professional and receptive, which ultimately helped all of us reach this positive outcome,” said Sarah Francisco, National Parks and Forests Program Leader for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The logging project was originally proposed for about 355 acres in the watershed of Big Creek, a tributary to the French Broad River. The area is located northeast of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Interstate 40, and near Max Patch, a popular high-elevation bald just over the state line in the neighboring Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. At the heart of the watershed lies the rugged Laurel Mountain area, which provides important backcountry wildlife habitat. It is also part of the relatively remote forest stretching between the Smokies and the Bald Mountains in the Cherokee and Pisgah national forests; such protected corridors are increasingly important for wildlife as the ecological changes that accompany a gradually warming planet continue to impact Southern Appalachian forests.
The Forest Service first decided to log the area in 2009. The groups filed an administrative appeal, citing concerns over habitat loss and muddy runoff from the steep slopes. The agency withdrew the decision, but reissued it virtually unchanged in 2010. On November 24, Cherokee Forest Voices, the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition and Wild South, represented by SELC, appealed the plan again. In addition to objections to logging in Laurel Mountain, the groups provided information showing that the majority (60-80%) of acres planned for logging were located on steep slopes (35% or greater) with soils identified by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service as having “severe” erosion hazards.
Under the agreement reached this week, the Forest Service will withdraw all logging in the Laurel Mountain area, thus avoiding many steep slopes and the most remote places where access and logging would be difficult, infeasible or damaging. Restricting logging in the area ensures protection for core wildlife habitat, rare natural communities, and sensitive higher elevation areas on Laurel Mountain. In the areas remaining for timber harvest, the agreement clarifies the Forest Service’s limits on logging operations on steep slopes.
Ben Prater of Wild South:
“Conservation organizations like ours have worked diligently for decades to ensure that the wild lands in our national forests remain intact and protected from logging and road building. The agreement to spare Laurel Mountain reflects a very reasonable approach of avoiding the most intact, core areas of our national forests, while focusing the agency’s limited resources on management in less environmentally risky and controversial locations.”
Hugh Irwin of Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition:
“The Forest Service at the national level is increasingly focusing on measures to assure resilience of our forests under climate change. We believe the landscape corridor from the Smokies into the Bald Mountains, which leads through the Laurel Mountain area, is regionally critical for wildlife habitat and movement in response to climate change, so we’re thankful that this good agreement could be reached.”
Catherine Murray of Cherokee Forest Voices:
“The Forest Service sought input from the public on this project, made the information available and worked with all the groups. This agreement is a positive outcome, showing that the collaborative process can work for managing the Cherokee National Forest. We look forward to building on this process.”