Controlled burns, bad management threaten Cherokee, group says

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF

   The National Forest Protection Alliance in its report, "Ten Most Endangered National Forests," recently released in Washington, D.C., listed Cherokee National Forest as "threatened."
   According to Dr. Frosty Levy, an East Tennessee State University biologist and member of the local watchdog group Cherokee Forest Voices, the No. 1 reason for listing the Cherokee would be "poor management," followed by "disregard for endangered species; almost a complete eye toward timber management with disregard for biodiversity; and maniacal and fanatical burning of the forest."
   Western firefighting crews and the Cherokee Hot Shots were called in recently to battle blazes in a forest under siege by arsonists. Oddly enough, the forest service has implemented a new practice of widespread prescribed burns.
   "They plan to burn 20,000 to 30,000 acres a year," Levy said, "and they've been doing it for the last couple of years. It's a 600,000 acre forest. At that rate, in 20 years you could burn the whole forest."
   Although the forest service says it uses controlled burns to reduce high-fuel areas where fires are likely to occur, Levy said one of the lesser-known reasons is because they get money from the federal government.
   "The more they burn, the more money they get. It's a reimbursement program from the federal government to the forest service from the national office.
   "I'm not saying that burning any forest is bad, because in the west burning is a very natural part of the forest system. On the coast burning is a regular occurrence. Most of the species that occur in those areas are adapted to not only survive through burns but often thrive with the burns," Levy said.
   "Our situation is not like that. We're in the moistest area in the Eastern United States. The Pisgah, the Cherokee, and the Nantahala -- you don't get moister than that in the east. They burn for money and they burn to get rid of all of the non-timber species. Everything that you can think of that might be aesthetically nice in a forest but isn't worthwhile for timber, they burn to get rid of those," he said, including various species of magnolias, silver bells, sourwood and dogwood.
   "If the burn doesn't completely kill them all, they go in two to five years later and they herbicide them (or) send crews in to just cut them down," Levy said.
   Two years ago, the forest service burned 600 acres on the north slope of Buffalo Mountain. In the spring, according to Levy, a burn is planned in Shady Valley.
   "The interesting thing about the Cherokee is they don't do anything for 'timber.' They say they're doing things for 'wildlife.' But they're always managing for wildlife that doesn't live in forests. ... They're managing for prairie species, they're managing for deer, they're managing presumably for bear, although all of the studies show that bears are inhibited by any kind of roads and human activity," he said.
   Across the region, 79 "bad timber sales" were closed down within this past year, according to Catherine Murray of Cherokee Forest Voices. Eight of those were in the Cherokee National Forest.
   A coalition of 10 conservation groups filed suit challenging the agency's timber sale program in the southern region based on the forest service's failure to survey for key wildlife species while preparing sales.
   "They really had not checked and did not have that data for as thorough a job as the law required," Murray said.
   One sale would have impacted the Nolichucky River, which is already impaired by siltation and agriculture, according to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation's Division of Water Pollution Control.
   Cherokee Voices hired a hydrologist to study the impact and found that at one section of the Nolichucky, Broad Shoals Creek, there would be added sediment in an hour, two at the most, that would reach the Nolichucky, Murray said.
   "Since it is an impaired water, that was going against the Clean Water Act," she said. "So they (forest service) withdrew that. I don't believe in their explanation that they agreed with us. They said that the area was damaged from pine bark beetle. Fine, if that's what they want to say. We, of course, have a different opinion, but they realized that what we were telling them was correct."
   Had the forest service gone ahead with the timber sales, it would have been more ammunition for a lawsuit, Murray said, "and we don't want to sue. We would rather make our comments and make our questions, and feel like they were following the rules and regulations."
   Sometimes those fall short, she said. "You hear big industry say, 'We are complying with the letter of the law.' Well, sometimes the law isn't strong enough to be protective."
   Dean Whitworth of Butler, also a member of Cherokee Forest Voices, said he believes everybody has a right to use the forest, "depending on what the use of the forest is and the amount of damage that it does to the resource -- the water values, the hydrological values, long-term economic value."
   "We feel that the activities should be controlled and regulated and commensurate with the amount of impact that they have on a resource. Our position right now is that one of the threats in the forest is off-road vehicles," he said.
   Another threat is from resource extraction, or timbering, Whitworth said, because "the methods that are used in the forest are not scientifically correct."
   According to Whitworth, a report Tuesday on National Public Radio stated that according to the forest service's evaluation of southeastern forests, logging practices are actually changing the structure of the forest.
   "In other words, its not going to be the same when they get through with it," he said.
   Pressures from timbering, off road vehicle use, and road building lead to pollution of the water supply and erosion of soils, Whitworth said.
   "If the forest service is attempting to build more roads and to extract more timber, that is a significant threat to our national forests.
   "There are certainly forests across the country that are in a lot worse trouble than the Cherokee is. But there are things happening in the Cherokee that we don't think are being done in a scientific manner and a prudent manner. We don't seem to be planning for our children and our grandchildren and their children. We seem to be going at it from the standpoint of what's good for right now and what helps the timber industry's next quarter reports," Whitworth said.
   "I don't have a problem with taking out mature trees. I have never objected to single tree selection. ... The problem is that the way the timber industry is set up -- and the forest service works with them on it -- is that they go in to say, a 25-acre area, and they not only take the mature trees that need to be gotten rid of to make room for the next generation, but while they're in there, they cut all the middle-age trees and all the young trees. It's basically a clear-cutting situation," he said.