WASHINGTON, DC--The U.S. Forest Service is illegally ignoring its own ecological records from nearly a century ago that contradict the intensive logging and burning proposed for five Southern Appalachian national forests, according to a whistleblower disclosure filed Friday.
The records show the Southern Appalachian forests were once dominated by tall, old trees, some 300 years old or more, indicating a relatively stable ecosystem. The information counters the Forest Service's long-standing assertion that the forests require large-scale logging and prescribed burns to mimic natural conditions that generate an "early successional" forest. The land-use plan updates for the five forests, now out for public comment, call for increased logging and burning on almost 3 million acres of public land in Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, Alabama and South Carolina.
The records were unearthed by Quentin Bass, an archaeologist with the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee with 20 years of service at the agency. He submitted his findings as part of the Cherokee forest plan revision, and received a performance award for his research. However, in violation of federal laws and the agency's own policy, the Forest Service only briefly mentions the information in the Cherokee plan, and excludes it entirely from plans for the other Southern Appalachian national forests.
"The Forest Service ignored its own records showing that natural forest conditions in the South are vastly different from those of western forests, yet it plans to apply forestry techniques practiced in California," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) which is representing Bass.
"The Forest Service is turning its back on the natural heritage of these southern forests," said Hugh Irwin of Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition (SAFC). Logging in coves, northern slopes and other areas results in "even aged" forest in the wrong place, he said. "The agency is perpetuating an unnatural forest."
"At the very least, this information shows the Forest Service can no longer fool the public by doing timber sales and prescribed burns in the name of ecosystem management," said Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) attorney Doug Ruley, who is representing the forest coalition and the Cherokee Forest Voices.
The archival maps and surveys were created almost a century ago when mountain land was being acquired for the national forest system. They document ecological features in areas of the forests that remained unlogged at the time, providing details on the species, age, dimensions and locations of trees and forest communities. Taken with other historical data, the information reveals a natural forest that
Has permanent canopies of trees of various ages, rather than the "even-aged" forest produced after clear-cuts and certain other management practices;
Has a rich variety, with different areas producing different canopy mixes that are not susceptible to "one-size-fits-all" planning (Forest Service records show at least 56 different canopy types in the Southern Appalachians); and
Is far more lush than the arid west and did not depend on periodic fires to regenerate.
Contrary to this, the plans for the Cherokee (TN), Chattahoochee/Oconee (GA), Jefferson (VA), Sumter (SC) and the Talladega and Bankhead (AL) national forests that would shape the mountain landscape for the next 10–15 years propose increasing logging and prescribed burns, some 3,000 acres or more. By failing to include and address this information in a meaningful way, the Forest Service is violating the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act, and the Data Quality Act, according to the disclosure. Also, by failing to include the information in four of the proposed management plans, the agency is violating its own policy for the Southern Appalachian region which stipulates, among other things, that the plan revisions be coordinated and consistent with one another, centered on the implementation of ecosystem management on a regional scale.
The whistleblower disclosure was filed with the Office of Special Counsel. If the agency finds that the disclosure has merit, it will require the Forest Service to respond in writing.
"Now more than ever, when the future management of these treasured public lands hangs in the balance, the public has a right to know what is in these records," said Catherine Murray of Cherokee Forest Voices.