The United States Forestry Service is ending the public comment portion of their newly proposed Foothills Landscape Project, a massive undertaking that includes logging, burning, rerouting trails, herbicide use, and building service roads through roughly 157,000 acres of the 750,145-acre park.
According to a Forestry Service press release, “[t]he project is designed to maintain and restore healthy forest, habitat and watershed conditions across 157,625-acres within the Chattahoochee National Forest in portions of Dawson, Fannin, Gilmer, Habersham, Lumpkin, Murray, Rabun and White Counties.”
The public comment portion of the project, which was announced in early December, ends on Jan. 10. Critically, the project’s proposal doesn’t nail down a specific timeline for the project, and experts from organizations like Southern Environmental Law Center estimate the project could go on for upwards of 40 years.
The proposal also doesn’t give specifics on which parts of the project area will be affected, opting for an open-ended plan of using a decision matrix to determine where the work needs to be done throughout the duration of the project, but ostensibly long after the public is no longer allowed to comment.
“No matter how you think national forests should be managed, eliminating the public from the decision-making process surrounding projects on their public lands is never the right approach,” said Southern Environmental Law Center staff attorney Patrick Hunter. “National forest users—including hikers, bikers, hunters, wildlife watchers and scenic drivers—won’t know which areas are on the chopping block until the opportunities for public involvement required by federal law have long passed. These people deserve a seat at the table.”
"The Forest Service is writing itself a blank check for logging, road building, burning and other activities that may not occur for a generation," Hunter added.
The project proposal outlines a rough plan for improving and preserving the park through controlled burns, logging, and other methods.
“Currently, the Foothills Landscape faces many threats, including unhealthy forest conditions, impairments to waterways and impacts from human use,” reads an informational publication issued by the Forestry Service. “The healthier forest conditions envisioned by this project will enhance wildlife habitat, improve watershed health, conserve and create unique habitats, provide sustainable recreation, and protect communities from wildfire. The project proposes a variety of management activities to accomplish these goals.”
A draft decision, which takes into account the comments received during the 30-day public comment period, is expected in the Spring of 2020, with a final decision to be published in summer.