Environmental groups challenge Cherokee management proposal

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   Appalachian mountain wisdom says, "You don't eat your seed corn." But local environmental groups are concerned this is just what is happening to our forests, in particular, the Cherokee, and that steps must be taken to preserve the forest's wealth of resources for future generations.
   A legal appeal and challenge was filed last month by Cherokee Forest Voices and its member organizations. The groups say the forest service, in its haste to recognize economic benefits of the forests through timber sales, is not taking a close enough look at the plants and animals that inhabit these areas to determine whether the sales would threaten any of them. Another issue is damage to rivers and streams due to erosion from road-building through the forests.
   The groups have challenged an amendment to the Cherokee National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan. The amendment would drop the number of plants and animals examined, known as the Management Indicator Species, from 103 to 17 -- a move the groups say would expedite timber sales.
   Catherine Murray, director of Cherokee Forest Voices, said her group challenged and prevented 79 timbers sales -- eight in the Cherokee. Murray said an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals judge found the forest service had not done an adequate evaluation of the Management Indicator Species and did not have sufficient data on the proposed sale areas, thus the judge blocked all 79 sales.
   Ten sales are on hold and eight are closed down because of the lawsuit, Murray said. The forest service will have to go back and gather the data before the sales can proceed.
   "The forest sends out every quarter a list of proposed actions and that's what alerts us or the logging companies, any interested person, as to what projects are being proposed, among those, timber projects," Murray said.
   "We or any other citizen can write back and say: 'If you do this, make sure that you protect the endangered species. Are there any in those compartments (tracts proposed for changes)? Have you done the evaluation to see? If you've got roadbuilding proposed, is that proposed on too steep a ground? Are you proposing your timber harvesting on too steep a ground?
   "Those are the type of questions that we would bring up," Murray said. "In essence, the forest service has to address the Management Indicator Species and address the data and what kind of monitoring they have -- and they don't have that information."
   Murray said Cherokee Forest Voices occasionally has had the money to hire its own botanist to conduct a biological evaluation. "He has gone out at what he considers the most opportune time of finding -- their bloom time or something like that -- and we have found more in our botanical surveys than what the forest service has.
   "We've bore the expense of some of these plan evaluations and we don't have them on all 18. We're not rich; we're not able to do that. But we're saying the forest service is supposed to do this," she said.
   "Occasionally when we have gone in we have found more rare and sensitive species than they have found." The group then offers its findings during the scoping phase and Environmental Assessment.
   "That's when they tell us, 'Here's all of the information that we have about this species,' and then we see if they address our issues that we brought up."
   The forest management plan amendment "drops their list down from 103 to 17," Murray said. "In other words, they have a whole lot fewer management indicator species to go out and collect data for.
   "We're saying that it violates the National Forest Management Act and also, it fails to indicate the effects of managing activities on the forest and the habitats for those management indicators. The list they're proposing, to bring it down to 17, just doesn't protect."
   The forest service claims the species it proposes to delist are covered by other existing laws and policies such as the Endangered Species Act, Sensitive Species Policy, standards and guidelines in the forest plan, or other monitoring systems such as the Breeding Bird Survey program.
   In 1986 when the forest management plan was first adopted, "they designated 42 species as Management Indicator Species. Then, in 1993, I believe, they designated 61 more, and they had good reasons to. If they had a very good reason for having the 42 original and adding 61 ... we're asking for an explanation of why" they are now reducing that number to 17, Murray said.
   "To know the effect, there has to be some sort of monitoring protocol. Their list, we believe, they're narrowing down to the ones that they have a monitoring protocol in effect for or they can very easily develop (17). That additional 61 management indicator species that they proposed, they have not developed a monitoring program on," Murray said. "We're saying they need that monitoring protocol in effect for the whole 103."
   The forest service's draft revision of the management plant is expected to be ready this fall and the final plan out by fall 2003, she said.
   "We're saying they're so close, what's the hurry to make these changes if you can make them a part of your planning process. It kind of puts that doubt in our mind as to why they're doing this. Since they are so close to having a new plan in place, what's the rush? Unless they don't believe they're that close to having it done," she said.
   Members of the various groups challenging the Management Indicator Species amendment say they use and appreciate the Cherokee for its scenic beauty and for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, mountain biking, bird and other wildlife watching, photography spiritual renewal, and other recreational and educational activities.
   They allege such an extensive reduction of the indicator list would gut the MIS program as a useful indicator of the effects of forest management.
   (Editor's Note: Cherokee Forest Voices member organizations include: The Tennessee Chapter of The Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Tennessee Audubon Council, Smoky Mountain Hiking Club, Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, League of Women Voters of Tennessee, The Sierra Club, and Hugh Erwin.)