Protecting our Southern Appalachian forests

Benefits of national forests in the South

Spanning nearly five million acres from Virginia to Alabama, the national forests that blanket our Southern Appalachians mountains provide habitat for a diverse array of fish and wildlife, safeguard our drinking water supplies, and contribute millions to our economy. The George Washington & Jefferson, Pisgah, Nantahala, Cherokee and Chattahoochee National Forests, along with the Andrew Pickens District of the Sumter National Forest, are some of the most accessible and beloved public lands in the country with endless opportunities for hiking, camping, picnicking or other recreational activities. 

National forests also provide an essential piece of tackling climate change. The federal government is responsible for 30% of our nation’s forests, primarily through the Forest Service, and these areas include some of the world’s biggest existing carbon sinks. Using Southern Appalachian forests to store carbon will become increasingly important as climate change continues to impact people in the South and around the world. 

National forests face a unique set of threats

National forests, unlike other types of public lands, are managed for multiple purposes. While the forests are used to preserve wildlife habitats and create space for recreational activities, they are also utilized for timber harvesting and other commercial projects. These conflicting goals can lead to unique threats, including irresponsible logging, unnecessary road construction projects, or private uses like utility infrastructure, that leave long-lasting scars on public forest lands. 

Especially at risk are mature, hardwood forests that contain wildlife habitat and patches of rare remaining old growth forests, headwater streams that feed drinking water supplies, and places beloved by hikers, anglers, and others who enjoy backcountry recreation. Threats to these special ecosystems are worsened by the Forest Service’s continued use of crude timber targets, which measure local officials’ performance by the volume of timber harvested or acres logged. We challenge these misguided proposals at the local level and bad policies at the regional and national level in order to protect ecological and scenic treasures that are vital to the Southeast.

SELC provides priceless strategy, counsel, and policy expertise and communicates our values in a way that state and federal agencies understand. Without SELC, we would have much less success in protecting public land.

Josh Kelly, MountainTrue

Pellet Mill Violations in the South

Biomass energy involves the large-scale burning of trees for power. A key part of the industry is turning trees into wood pellets, a dangerous and harmful process that has long-lasting impacts on nearby communities and the people who live there. As the biomass industry has grown in recent years, these dirty pellet facilities have proliferated throughout the South

Pellet plants release harmful pollution, like nitrogen oxide, along with fine particles that can cause respiratory infections and asthma in nearby communities. Often times, these hazardous pellet plants are sited near communities of color that are already overburdened with industrial pollution. These facilities continue a long legacy of environmental injustice in the South. 

Because of these harmful impacts, these pellet plants are regulated by state agencies. But wood pellet corporations often violate their permits, putting nearby residents at risk. Data from the Environmental Integrity Project shows that, in 2017, one in three wood pellet plants violated permitted limits. Even at regulated pollution levels, emissions from pellet plants can be harmful to nearby communities, so violations are particularly dangerous. 

This chart outlines the known violations at wood pellet plants across the South.  

View Resource

How we protect national forests 

Preserving these forests has been at the heart of SELC’s mission from the day we opened our doors in 1986. In that time, we have become a national leader in forest advocacy by creating a sustained presence in the Southern Appalachian’s national forests and by working in partnership with local partners and, when possible, with US Forest Service staff. We advocate for the agency to end crude timber targets for ranger districts, create a clear policy that bans logging of old-growth forests, and to emphasize carbon storage as a Forest Service goal. 

While we use a variety of approaches to defend the Southern Appalachian forests, our greatest leverage comes in shaping the Forest Service’s management plans that decide a national forest’s future for 15 or more years at a time. We work to influence these plans so the Forest Service will recognize and prioritize the importance of protecting ecologically valuable areas, including by prohibiting logging from certain critical areas or excluding destructive practices such as natural gas fracking. This allows us to work together in subsequent years on positive projects that move our conservation vision forward. We have been very successful at steering the US Forest Service away from bad ideas and, in relatively few cases, pushing back particularly reckless projects through litigation.