Courthouse Falls, located in Pisgah National Forest in Transylvania County. Image via Wikipedia Creative Commons.

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Groups appealing plan to timber harvest in Courthouse Creek; Forest Service says concessions already made

On Nov. 13, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed an administrative appeal on behalf of Wild South, the Western North Carolina Alliance and the Wilderness Society to halt a U.S. Forest Service plan to harvest timber in the Courthouse Creek area of the Pisgah Ranger District in the Pisgah National Forest.

Now, the parties are planning to meet on Dec. 12 to discuss the appeal and whether a comprise can be reached.

According to the appeal, the project, which was first announced in August 2010, violates the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act. Read the full appeal below.

“The Courthouse Creek area is a unique and special place,” said Josh Kelly, biologist with the Western North Carolina Alliance, of the Transylvania County spot, which is near the popular Blue Ridge Parkway destination Devil’s Courthouse. “We have repeatedly suggested other more suitable locations for logging, but the Forest Service has refused to redraw its plans.”

Ben Prater, of Wild South, added that “the Forest Service bills this timber sale as a restoration project – but the pristine habitat in this area doesn’t need restoring. It needs to be protected.”

But Forest Service officials said that concessions have already been made to meet the demands of environmental groups.

“We received a number of comments about the project when the environmental assessment was issued last December,” Pisgah District Ranger Derek Ibarguen said in a press release. “We modified the project to address stakeholders’ concerns, and I believe the end result is a project that is good for the land, the wildlife and the people who enjoy Courthouse Creek.”

“We felt it was important to move forward,” added Stevin Westcott, public affairs officer of the National Forests of North Carolina supervisor’s office. “The forest harvesting is only one aspect of the project; there are many other facets to the project that will improve the health of the forest.”

Plan calls for 30 timber harvest sites, planting chestnuts, restoring trout habitat

According to a Sept. 25 Forest Service press release, the Courthouse Creek area encompasses 7,000 acres of the 160,000-acre Pisgah Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest. The agency said that the purpose of the four- to five-year project is to implement a variety of management activities to improve ecological diversity and promote forest health and sustainability.

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In addition to a range of activities that include planting hybrid American Chestnut trees, removing non-native invasive species and restoring brook trout habitat, the plan calls for 30 timber harvest sites ranging in size from four to 34 acres. In all, 435 acres will be harvested throughout the 7,000-acre area.

According to the Forest Service, no clear-cuts will take place, and no new roads will be constructed.

The project, slated to begin in 2015, will include logging in an area that, the groups argue in the appeal, is important for its scenic, cultural, recreational and economic values.

The project area is within one of the highest rainfall areas on the east coast and presents a significant landslide risk. A portion of the project area, according to state biologists, is also one of the best representations of middle- and high elevation forests in the state because of the condition of the forest.

It also overlaps a portion of the Pisgah Ridge/Pilot Mountain Significant Natural Heritage Area. According to the N.C. Department of Natural Resources, the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program has identified more than 2,500 sites of special biodiversity significance statewide, which are designated Significant Natural Heritage Areas.

The plan originally called for timber harvests in 177 acres in the natural heritage area, but that number was reduced to 65 acres.

Still, the appeal argues the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act by prematurely rejecting reasonable alternatives to timber harvesting. The appeal also argues that the project has not shown it is consistent with the Nantahala and Pisgah national forest management plan and the National Forest Management Act.

“We don’t take these appeals lightly,” said D.J. Gerken, the managing attorney of the Asheville office of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Most forest projects go through without controversy, but this project is an exceptionally bad idea. We are very disappointed it has gone this far down the administrative process.”

Agency also planning long-term area management

Kristin Bail, forest supervisor of the National Forests in North Carolina. Image via the U.S. Forest Service.

The appeal coincides with the start of the public comment period for the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forest Land Management Plan revision. Throughout the month, the Forest Service will hold meetings and accept public input on the current state of forests’ resources.

While the timing of the appeal is independent of the public input process on the management plan’s revision, Gerken said that the appeal and the revision do overlap.

“The forest plan lays out the vision we will live with for the next 10-to-15 years,” he said. “The forest plan is the touchstone for everything. If we, as an invested community, fail to underscore what is important, then we will be disappointed by the projects we get over the next two decades.”

The first phase of the revision is expected to be complete in January 2014, and the Forest Service has said it intends to finalize the plan by the spring of 2016.

According to federal rules, the appellants must be invited to an informal disposition meeting to search for common ground, which, Gerken said, is planned for Dec. 12. If no compromise can be reached, then the appeal will be decided by the forest supervisor. Gerken said that since the decision to log the area was made by a district ranger, National Forests of North Carolina Forest Supervisor Kristin Bail would decide whether to accept or reject the appeal.

“An administrative appeal is a way to ask someone higher up in the agency to reconsider the decision,” he said.

Bail has 45 days from the appeal date to deliver a decision in the event the Forest Service and those filing the appeal to do not reach a compromise.

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If a compromise isn’t reached and the appeal is rejected, Gerken said there is no further administrative appeal and that any further challenges to the decision would need to be taken to federal court.

Courthouse Creek Appeal (PDF)
Courthouse Creek Appeal (Text)

Learn more

To find more of Carolina Public Press’s ongoing special report on Western North Carolina’s national forests, read:

‘Wherever you are in WNC, public lands are always in the backdrop’: How WNC gained a million acres of national forests, and what their future management may mean

Future management of WNC’s national forests up for discussion; 10- to 15-year plan subject of public meetings

Jack Igelman

Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jack@igelman.com.

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