From CPP: Forest Service changes Nantahala timber harvest plans in face of lawsuit

Mature trees in the Nantahala National Forest in August 2022. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

The U.S. Forest Service has announced it will not harvest timber from a 15-acre patch of North Carolina mountain forest that is the subject of a federal lawsuit.

The Forest Service said in a June 21 statement that it would remove the acreage from its Southside Project within the Nantahala National Forest in Jackson County. District Ranger M. Troy Waskey decided not to build a temporary road and harvest timber from stand 41-53, according to the statement. Rangers are responsible for project decisions in their districts.

“The USDA Forest Service has proactively removed a 15-acre stand under litigation from the Southside Project — a series of planned management activities to promote healthy forest restoration on a portion of the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina,” said Forest Supervisor for the National Forests in North Carolina, James Melonas in the statement.

“Rather than continue a lengthy legal process, the Forest Service will now focus on the successful implementation of the remainder of this important project. This change only impacts a small 15-acre stand within the Southside Project, and proposed activities outside of the stand will continue.”

The Southern Environmental Law Center, representing five environmental organizations, filed the federal lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service in January, opposing a proposed timber harvest in the Nantahala National Forest in the far western corner of North Carolina.

The stand in question, along the Whitewater River in Jackson County, is part of an area known as the Southside Project that was finalized in 2019. The overall project includes the timber harvest of trees on 300 acres in 23 separate stands within a 19,000 acre section of national forest land near the Georgia and South Carolina state lines. The average size of each stand is 22 acres.

In all, the Southside Project will use timber prescriptions, such as cutting trees, controlled fire and other techniques to manage the forest.

“We have been pointing out problems with the agency’s logging plans for this area for years,” said Patrick Hunter, managing attorney of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Asheville Office.

“It’s a shame we had to take them to court to achieve this outcome, but we’re glad this incredible area is no longer on the chopping block. Unfortunately, the new Forest Plan sets us up for more of these conflicts in the future. National forests in Western North Carolina — and the people who enjoy them — deserve better.”

The legal complaint, which focused on the 15-acre timber harvest, argued that the Southside Project is inconsistent with the U.S. Forest Service’s new plan to manage North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest and Nantahala National Forest, which the agency released in February 2023.

“The logging risks destroying many, if not all, of the area’s special ecological values identified by Plaintiffs, the State of NC, and the Forest Service,” the lawsuit said.

According to the lawsuit, logging and road building would have damaged rare plant and animal habitats and degraded the scenic quality of the Whitewater River gorge.

The plaintiffs represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, or SELC, include the Chattooga Conservancy, the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, MountainTrue, and the Center for Biological Diversity.

The 15-acre site removed from the project is an exceptional patch of forest in a North Carolina-designated natural area and within 100 yards of the Whitewater River, a waterway identified by the Forest Service as eligible for inclusion in the U.S. Wild and Scenic River system, said Buzz Williams of the Chattooga Conservancy.

“The Forest Service wants to cut timber on one of the most iconic spots on the Whitewater River,” Williams told CPP in February. “We’re talking about one of the most exceptional recreational, scenic, and biologically diverse areas in the United States.”

According to the Forest Service’s June 21 press release: “the Southside Project was designed to reestablish hardwood forests and natural plant and animal communities that have declined due to past settlement patterns, 20th century timber activities, fire exclusion and invasive species. The 15-acre area that had been under litigation includes an artificially high white pine population due in part to past land use and nearby white pine plantations.”

David Whitmire of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council, which represents the interests of fishers and hunters in Western North Carolina, said he’s interested in finding 15 acres within the project area to replace the removed site. His group seeks more forest management, such as prescribed fire and timber harvests to create habitat for game and other forest animals.

“I agree with the Forest Service’s decision,” Whitmire said. “It’s unfortunate, but we can’t let 15 acres hold up the rest of the project. I hope it’s not a way in the future of knocking active (forest) management down when you need it.”

The legal action reflects broader concerns about balancing the need for timber harvesting to restore the ecology of the forest while preserving ecologically significant areas and underscores the complexities of managing public lands.

The 15-acre site is not the only controversial patch of forest within the Southside Project. In 2021, CPP reported on a 26-acre parcel of forest on Brushy Mountain, which environmentalists said is an exceptional patch of old-growth forest and provides habitat for the green salamander, a rare species.

“There are much better ways to create forest diversity without cutting irreplaceable old-growth timber,” Williams told CPP in 2021. “The greatest value of our national forests is to protect biological diversity and to manage them to help us adapt to climate change.”

The Forest Service disagreed with objections to harvesting the Brushy Mountain site. A bid was accepted from a private timber company to harvest the trees by November 2026.

The Brushy Mountain section, however, was not included in the SELC lawsuit. The site, as well as other sections of the Southside project, comply with both the old plan and new forest management plans. The claim that harvesting the 15 acres would place the Forest Service out of compliance with the new plan was the grounds for the lawsuit.

This article first appeared on Carolina Public Press and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.


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3 thoughts on “From CPP: Forest Service changes Nantahala timber harvest plans in face of lawsuit

  1. Voirdire

    15 acres …what about the other 100,000 plus acres they’re planning on harvesting over the next ten years with their lovely “plan”?!? So absolutely ridiculous.

  2. Bright

    Yup…15 acres to the sacrifice of how many at a later, undisclosed date??? Citizens, keep vigilance and report theft of public lands’ lumber. The trees aren’t there for greed-mongers to trash like they have done throughout sad America. Get control of yourselves, “Forest Service,” if that’s what you’re doing to justify your existence.

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