Our Forest

firefly

WHY PROTECT WILD AREAS?

We need wilderness preserved – as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds – because it
was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there – important, that is, simply as an idea.”

– Wallace Stegner,
from his Wilderness Letter

For well over a century, Americans have been setting aside certain public lands for protection
in an undeveloped state. For much of that time, the practice was uniquely American, though many other nations now embrace it. Why? Stegner argued that there is something about wild country that resonates deeply in the American spirit. Today’s wilderness lovers would agree, even as they find the question of “why wilderness” an odd one. For them, it is simply enough that wild areas are there; to question its value is to question the value of such things as art, music, the brilliance of a brook trout flashing through a mountain pool, a sunset, a child’s laughter.

For many of us, the values of wild areas are intrinsic, self-evident and have little to do
with utilitarian accounting. We share Albert Einstein’s view: “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.” But the process of protecting wild areas on our federal public lands is finally a political one. As such, wild areas must contend in both the marketplace of ideas and the marketplace itself. Fortunately, they contend very well in both venues.

Start with outdoor recreation, a huge and growing part of our economy. Families do not outfit themselves for adventures in clearcuts and strip mines. They seek peaceful places, natural quiet and natural sounds. At the high end of that scale are protected wild areas. They draw countless hikers, backcountry hunters and anglers, campers, whitewater paddlers, all of whom spend money, lots of it, to equip themselves and simply to get there. The Outdoor Industry Association says that economic engine tallies up to 27.3 billion dollars of actual spending in Georgia each year.

We also know from years of research that some of the most economically robust places in the nation are those nearest wild country. Businesses relocate to such places, knowing that competent, well-equipped workers are either there or will come, seeking what teeming cities are so often unable to provide: a high quality of life, what some refer to as “a paycheck from God.”

Large tracts of protected forest also provide critical habitat for many species of wildlife. Backcountry hunters and anglers know this both intuitively and from much-valued personal experience. Not only are hunting and fishing allowed in protected wilderness, wilderness provides the best of those pursuits for true sportsmen and women, those for whom the hunt itself is every bit as important as the harvest. While the hunting can be more demanding due to remoteness and lack of motorized or wheeled access, hunters often report bigger deer and bear due to less competition. Not to mention the greater challenge. The same goes for fishing.

Science is telling us, too, that interior forest songbirds may need relatively unbroken areas
of mature forest in order to maintain viable populations. And other wide-ranging species
such as black bear seem to prefer wild settings. Our knowledge of these species and their needs grows all the time. As we learn more about our native flora and fauna, prudence suggests that we let some of our public land stand undeveloped rather than risk erasing the complex web of sustaining elements critical to their well-being.

Our faucets bring home the importance of keeping wild areas intact. Researchers show
how forests keep sediment out of the streams that flow through them, and the water ready for us to use. Fishermen and women count on forest shade to keep temperatures cool enough for trout. We all count on large wild areas to limit flooding. These services ease the bottom line for municipalities by reducing the need for water supply and treatment infrastructure.

Wilderness and unbroken backcountry serve these functions admirably and they will do so sustainability if we have the wit and the will to let them. Their role becomes ever more important as we lose precisely those attributes on private land at an accelerating rate. As undisrupted habitat and open space dwindle on other ownerships, their retention on natural public lands becomes more and more vital.

If we were to single out one purpose for our public lands that surpasses all others it would be this: to provide things that private lands cannot or do not provide. Among those are public recreational opportunities, opportunities for solitude and primitive experiences, undisrupted habitat, and natural settings.

"This work articulates the importance of our last wild places in the north Georgia mountains, places that not only preserve old-growth forests and rare plants and animals, but offer a refuge for us humans. Georgia ForestWatch has been fighting for these places since its inception over 30 years ago, testimony to the spirit of people committed for the long haul to guard nature from being exploited and sacrificed for short-term gain. This is a beautiful vision for our forests."

– Janisse Ray, author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood and Pinhook: Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land

A GROWING ATTRACTION

In 2014, almost three million visitors came to the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests for recreational reasons. Most telling is how this number grew almost 40 percent over a five-year period, as 2009 data showed a little over two million recreational visits to the forests. With the enormous growth that north Georgia has experienced over the last two decades, it is not surprising that over half of these visits were from residents who live within a 50-mile radius of the forest.

Of the 30 different recreational uses identified for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests, the number one reason to visit the forests was for hiking and walking (32.4 percent), followed by: viewing natural features (24.8 percent), fishing (10.8 percent), “other non-motorized uses” (5.6 percent), “some other activity” (4.1 percent), and hunting (3.8 percent). Most other uses, such as backpacking, developed camping bicycling, and horseback riding came in at under 2 percent
of recreational use.

By 2060, the number of southern adults participating in the top 10 outdoor recreation activities is projected to increase, with the largest increase projected among hiking (70-113 percent) and the lowest increase among hunting (8-25 percent). Activities such as birding, wildlife viewing, nature photography, and mountain biking are among the fastest growing recreational activities on the forest. Increases are projected across all recreational sites, including Wilderness, day use and overnight developed sites, and general forest areas. As tourism around this recreation increases, so does its role in supporting the economies of rural north Georgia communities. With finite places to recreate receiving increasing use, the importance of protecting scenic natural areas like Georgia’s Mountain Treasures also increases.

Photo by Larry Winslett – www.larrywinslettphotography.com
Photo by Larry Winslett – www.larrywinslettphotography.com

THE SOUTHERN APPALACHIAN ECOSYSTEM

There is a lot at stake regarding the future of our Southern Appalachian forests. The next forest plan revisions will decide key questions about how we choose to protect and manage these forests for the future. The Appalachians are globally-significant mountains, running from Quebec south for 1,500 miles to Alabama. The range is impressive along its length, but it is in the Southern Appalachians that the chain is at its most scenically spectacular and biologically rich.

Here, a unique combination of physical factors creates the perfect recipe for astonishing animal and plant species richness. These ancient, rugged mountains range in elevation from 700 feet up to Mount Mitchell’s 6,684-foot summit. Many places receive 80 inches of rainfall each
year, encouraging the growth of over 2,000 species of plants, including over 130 species of trees – more than are found in all of Europe. Aquatic biodiversity ranks among the highest on the planet. Much of this biodiversity is contained on the 4.5 million acres of federal public lands that stretch across parts of five states from Georgia to Virginia and include the largest remaining expanses of natural habitat in the eastern United States. Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest comprises 750,000 acres of this acreage, and represents the southernmost portion
of this invaluable public resource.

The high diversity of the Southern Appalachians can be attributed to several factors, one of which is the alignment of the mountains. The northeast-southwest orientation of the Appalachians provided a corridor for species to use during the last ice age. Instead of going extinct as they struggled to migrate over high mountains – which happened in the east-west oriented mountains of Europe – species were able to follow the natural passages in the Appalachians down to warmer temperatures, thus keeping pace with their southward moving habitat. Many species found habitat within the Southern Appalachians themselves, where glaciation never reached. As glaciers began to recede some 18,000 years ago, species that had migrated to the Appalachians stayed, having adapted to their new home and landscape.

Another cause for Appalachian diversity is the large number of different habitats offered in the mountains, as moisture, temperature, and resources fluctuate dramatically in short distances throughout the region. Two sides of a mountain may exhibit wildly different characteristics, each side accommodating species that could not survive on the other. Similarly, gorges and summits each can host very different flora and fauna, offering temperature change across geographic gradients that would require hundreds of miles of migration in a flatter, plains-type habitat. This diversity in habitat means that the Appalachians have many different community types, including dry forests, moist forests, wetlands, rock outcrop communities, and aquatic communities, as well as micro-site variation within each of these
communities.

“Even narratives about natural treasures need updating, reevaluating, reinterpreting, redefining, or simply reconfirming. These narratives also need ground-truthing. Wild places are most real underfoot, not merely in the words compiled about them. Ideas of wilderness and wildness are now often challenged, especially in the Anthropocene, so an update of an important work like Georgia’s Mountain Treasures is important. I look forward to adding this new edition to my shelf of essential works on some of the watersheds I love most.”

– John Lane, author of Chattooga: Descending into the Myth of Deliverance River

Photo by Larry Winslett – www.larrywinslettphotography.com
Photo by Larry Winslett – www.larrywinslettphotography.com

VULNERABLE HABITATS

Conditions rapidly fluctuate in the Southern Appalachians, the result of which is a complex puzzle of ecosystems, many of which are small and isolated. These represent habitats that are especially at risk from climate change and other anthropogenic influences, as
habitat loss would require the affected species to travel through inhospitable habitat to reach an area that could support them. Bears, for instance, have large territories
and still rely on corridors of suitable habitat to connect broader habitat patches. On the other hand, populations of species with small ranges (like frogs, salamanders, and turtles) and many soil-dwelling organisms that require undisturbed soil habitat may not recover from
disturbances that decimate quality habitat within their range. For some highly specialized species, the loss of their current habitat would mean local extinction (extirpation) as they would not survive migration. Thus, scale is an important consideration when considering
certain vulnerable habitats and species loss, particularly endemic species.

The Appalachians are home to many groups of animals and plants; prominent among them are salamanders, fungi, trees, mosses, millipedes, spiders, moths, birds, small mammals, large mammals, fish, freshwater mussels, aquatic invertebrates, crayfish, beetles and snails. Of these species, many have carved a specific niche for themselves in the Southern Appalachians, and can be found nowhere else in the world – endemic species. For example, the Appalachians are home to 55 species of Salamander, 21 of which are endemic.

Photo by Jess Riddle
Photo by Jess Riddle

OLD-GROWTH FORESTS

In a January 1990 letter to Dr. Mary Byrd Davis, then Chattahoochee National Forest Supervisor Kenneth Henderson stated that “there are no stands of virgin forests on the Chattahoochee and Oconee National Forests.” Dr. Davis was attempting to document existing old-growth across the eastern United States. Not long after Dr. Davis published Eastern Old-Growth Forests: Prospects for Rediscovery and Recovery (1996) she contacted the new Georgia ForestWatch office in Ellijay, Georgia, inquiring about any data ForestWatch might have to counter Henderson’s claim. This was a fortuitous meeting, as Jess Riddle had just become part of the ForestWatch team in 2001, and his sole job was to document old-growth on the Chattahoochee National Forest.

Some old-growth research had begun in 1995 with Paul Carlson in the Chattooga River watershed. But it was Jess Riddle of Georgia ForestWatch and Rob Messick of the Western North Carolina Alliance who began a comprehensive forest-wide study. Messick had developed a science-based methodology for old-growth assessment based off surveys completed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Carlson’s work in the Chattooga River watershed. Messick and Riddle compiled a list of candidate old-growth sites on the Chattahoochee from many sources and prioritized them on the likelihood that they contained old-growth, and on their vulnerability of being logged by the Forest Service. They then winnowed the list of these sites down based on the following criteria: remoteness and lack of roads; and the presence of steep slopes, including walls, gorges, massifs, precipitous mountainsides, and odd, variegated
ridge and valley slopes.

Over the next three years, Riddle inventoried 7,000 acres of old-growth that had survived on the Chattahoochee. Approximately 4,000 additional acres had been documented in 1995 by Paul Carlson in the Chattooga River watershed, including parts of Georgia, North
Carolina, and South Carolina.

Defining old-growth is hard in the eastern U.S. with its great diversity of forest types; but for the sites identified in this publication it is sufficient to say that these sites were never clearcut or extensively logged. Old-growth can include areas with many old trees and some evidence of human disturbance in past decades – for example, forests where the chestnuts were removed following the blight, and nothing else. Old-growth forests provide crucial resources that younger, immature forests cannot supply. By providing fallen, decomposing trees, oldgrowth forests sustain a web of life that extends from soil-building microorganisms, all the way up the food chain. In the middle of that sequence, standing dead trees provide shelter for mammal, bird and insect species. Indeed, insects and related arthropods reach their highest diversity in old-growth forests because of their stable temperatures and relative humidities, species richness, and structural complexity (Schowalter 2017). Some species like flying squirrels and black bears decline in places because of the lack of mature, sheltering trees. Finally, with old trees come mortality and the natural creation of early successional habitat as trees fall and
create gaps in the forest canopy, starting the process anew. The proven antidote to many of our forest health problems is to simply allow the forest to mature and grow old. These forests can also in turn provide a baseline to forest managers, who can compare active management
practices with the natural processes of such forests.

“The national forests do not belong to the US Forest Service – they belong to us, the people of the United States. It is our duty to make sure that these forests are cared for with the good of all in mind, and that doesn’t just mean the good of all people, but the good of all living beings. Scientific evidence shows us that leaving these forests in their natural, wild, condition results in the highest levels of biodiversity and the most carbon uptake. In addition, these wild forests are places of beauty where we can go for recreation and spiritual renewal. Certainly these forests are more than merely places for wood fiber production. We have never been sorry when we protected a forest, but we have often been sorry when we haven’t.”

- Joan Maloof, PhD, Founder and Director of the Old-Growth Forest Network and author

THREATS TO THE LANDSCAPE

Land-use change or habitat loss is projected to have the largest global impact on biodiversity by the year 2100, followed by climate change, invasion of exotic species, and atmospheric pollution (Chapin et al. 2000). It has never been more important to keep all of our ecosystems healthy and protected from degradation, as they represent a diverse group of – often vulnerable – habitats and provide critical ecosystem services like clean water and flood protection. Local habitat loss can occur from degradation of a particular habitat due to disturbances like logging, road building, recreational overuse, and invasion by exotic species. If the area is given time to heal with no further disturbance, or restoration is attempted, many species can recover. But land use changes resulting in fragmentation of existing plant and aquatic communities (e.g. converting forest to residential areas) result in the greatest habitat loss and extinction of local species.

The north Georgia mountains are changing, and the rate and range of change are remarkable. Some change comes quietly with the arrival of invasive exotic species, and some comes more visibly with the steady advance of burgeoning populations and attendant development. These impacts create an uncertain future for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests, and this section of Georgia’s Mountain Treasures looks at some of these threats and the changes they foreshadow. These threats will influence the health of our public forests for years to
come.

Photo by Larry Winslett – www.larrywinslettphotography.com
Photo by Larry Winslett – www.larrywinslettphotography.com

CLIMATE CHANGE

Every spring for millennia, Appalachian forests have filled with the sound of arriving neo-tropical songbirds and the beauty of early spring wildflowers. Go for a walk in our Georgia mountains in late April and you will hear the sounds of hooded warblers, wood thrush, black-throated green warblers, and much, much more. Wildflowers will have pushed their way up before leaf-out to get maximum sunlight for photosynthesis – blood-root, trilliums, jack in the pulpit, and many more signaling spring’s arrival. But in 50 years, this could be a very different experience. According to a recent peer-reviewed report by the Audubon Society, more than half of our 588 North American bird species are in trouble from climate change (National Audubon Society 2015). Three hundred fourteen species are predicted to lose half their current summer range by 2080, and 126 of these are “climate endangered,” meaning they will lose their current summer range completely with no place left to go. The remaining 188 are “climate threatened,” meaning their ranges will become limited, with the long term possibility of even greater reduction in range as temperatures continue to rise.

It is hard to imagine a north Georgia spring without the melodic song of a black-throated green warbler, but Audubon predicts that by 2080 this bird will only be found within three percent of its current summer range, gone from the southern mountains, and forced to adapt quickly to a completely new breeding range. Wood thrush is predicted to lose 82 percent of its current range by 2080, and 34 percent of its breeding range. Ruffed grouse will not only be gone from the Southern Appalachians in 2080, but could disappear from the entire lower 48 by the end of the century. The same goes for climate sensitive species such as golden-winged warbler, which is predicted to be completely absent from its current breeding range by 2080.

According to The Southern Forest Futures Project: technical report (Wear and Greis 2013), a comprehensive report published by the Forest Service’s Southern Research Station, climate change will also impact forest composition, spread non-native invasive species, increase forest pest and disease outbreaks, extend fire seasons, and alter hydrology. Many of these stressors will be exacerbated by urbanization, land conversion, and water demand.

In particular, climate change could have a major impact on our mountain hardwood forests, as the predicted northward expansion of more southern species could invade these forests and replace them. High-elevation forest communities are particularly vulnerable, as many species in such forests are restricted geographically; with nowhere to migrate, they will be replaced by those species which can adapt, creating new forest assemblages and permanently altering native ranges.

Water supply stress will also increase under all climate change projections. Higher temperatures result in more water evaporation, but this will also be coupled with extreme drought in some areas, along with increased demand for drinking water. Past efforts to capture north Georgia water will no doubt continue into the future as north Georgia’s population continues to grow, and how this demand is met could have a significant impact on the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests.

Given the current and predicted impacts from climate change on the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests, a plan to mitigate those impacts and slow the pace of climate-change effects will be essential. In fact, the 2012 Planning Rule directs the Forest Service to take climate change into account when making new forest plans. The plan should certainly include protecting and creating corridors between large unfragmented areas such as Mountain Treasures. Corridors connect fragmented patches of habitat in the landscape and can vary greatly in size, shape, and composition. The main goal of corridors is to assist the movement of species through both dispersal and migration, and to maintain gene flow and diversity between local populations. This lowers the chance for extinction and offers greater support for species richness.

“More than 250 species of birds rely on Georgia’s forests for breeding, foraging and safety. Diverse structure and content plus large tracts of contiguous forests are especially important to both residents and neotropical migrants as they make up for their losses from one breeding season to the next.”

– Georgann Schmalz, Ornithologist and President of Birding Adventures, Inc.

In the north Georgia mountains, where habitat  fragmentation is largely the work of human activities, and loss of forested land to residential development is increasing at a high rate, corridors are more vital than ever. Plants and animals need these corridors for dispersal and migration under climate change scenarios. When a corridor is present it provides an unbroken path of suitable habitat that can provide safe passage for animals or plants without being hindered as they travel through agricultural or urban landscapes. Protecting and connecting Georgia’s Mountain Treasures is one way to address this concern, while at the same time working with local county and government officials to ensure that private land corridors receive adequate funding and incentives to complete the picture.

“Every time I drink a glass of water from my faucet, I thank the Chattahoochee National Forest. It is the source and protector of our drinking water here in Atlanta. The most important product from a healthy forest is clean water, and I shudder to think what Atlanta would be without the Chattahoochee National Forest.”

– Charles Seabrook, Columnist and environmental writer for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and author

NON-NATIVE INVASIVE SPECIES

PLANTS:

All federal agencies are directed to detect and rapidly respond to control populations of non native invasive species (NNIS). That direction considers a species as non-native if it is not native to the ecosystem under consideration, and if its introduction is likely to cause harm to human health, to the environment, or to the economy. NNIS have been identified by the Forest Service as one of the four significant threats to National Forest ecosystems. In response, the Forest Service has identified a national strategy composed of four program elements: 1) prevention; 2) early detection and rapid response; 3) control and management; and 4) rehabilitation and restoration.

Both plant and animal NNIS are a major concern on the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests, as they exist almost everywhere that our native forests occur. With the exception of some of our unroaded areas, which are more resistant due to their remoteness, NNIS threaten native ecosystems by degrading habitat and displacing the native plants and animals that are normally present. Outcompeting native species leads to the decline of many sensitive native species that require unique habitats, while exotic pests, such as the hemlock woolly adelgid, may impact entire ecosystems by destroying forest cover and all species dependent upon it. At another scale, rare plant communities, such as mountain bogs, are being invaded by Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum), requiring an enormous volunteer effort. Volunteers must not only remove this species, but cage rare plants from the destructive rooting of wild hogs.

EXISTING INVASIVE SPECIES DATA FOR THE CHATTAHOOCHEE-OCONEE NATIONAL FORESTS

Forest Service inventories have documented many NNIS infestations in hardwood and mixed hardwood stands, primarily Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum), followed by Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense), Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), and trifoliate orange (Poncirus trifoliata). Below is a partial list of NNIS plants that occur on the Chattahoochee-Oconee:

Scientific NameCommon Name
Ailanthus altissimaTree of heaven
Albizia julibrissinMimosa; Silktree
Celastrus orbiculatusOriental bittersweet
Dioscorea oppositifoliaChinese yam
Elaeagnus umbellataAutumn olive
Hedera helixEnglish ivy
Lespedeza cuneataSericea lespedeza
Ligustrum sinenseChinese privet
Lolium arundinaceum *Tall fescue
Lonicera japonicaJapanese honeysuckle
Melia azedarachChinaberry
Microstegium vimineumJapanese stiltgrass; Nepal grass
Miscanthus sinensisChinese silvergrass
Paulownia tomentosaPrincess tree
Polygonum cuspidatumJapanese knotweed
Poncirus trifoliataTrifoliate orange
Pueraria lobataKudzu
Rosa multifloraMultiflora rose
Sorghum halepenseJohnson grass
Spiraea japonicaJapanese meadowsweet
Vinca majorLarge periwinkle
Vinca minorSmall periwinkle
Wisteria sinenseChinese wisteria

* Applies only to endophyte-enhanced cultivars,
(e.g. KY 31 tall fescue)

Photo by Jess Riddle
Photo by Jess Riddle

ANIMALS:

One of the most damaging invasive and exotic animals in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests is wild hogs. Although hogs were brought in as early as the late 15th century by Spanish explorers, and subsequently by early colonial settlers, the feral hogs in north Georgia today are mostly descendants of Eurasian hogs (also known as Russian boar). Most of these Eurasian hogs were originally introduced for hunting at a wild game preserve on Hooper Bald in western North Carolina in the 1920s. These pure Eurasian hogs escaped and hybridized with domestic hogs, furthering their spread. State game agencies also introduced these animals in the 1970s in far western North Carolina based on hunter demand for them. A Eurasian sow can reproduce at six months of age and have up to 13 offspring in one litter. Despite yearround hunting and trapping with no limit, they remain a destructive force to native plants and animals.

Wild hogs are omnivorous, eating anything from farm crops to dead animals. Acorns, roots, and other plant matter are a preferred and major part of their diet, but they will also consume invertebrates such as centipedes, leeches, earthworms and crayfish. Damage caused by feral hogs has been reported throughout Georgia, and much of this damage harms all species of native wildlife that depend upon limited natural food supplies. This includes hard and soft mast (especially acorns), and impacts high-demand game animals such as deer, wild turkey, quail, black bear, and ruffed grouse. They have also been documented destroying the nests of other ground nesting birds, as well as threatened and endangered plants and their habitat, along with contributing to sedimentation and the bacterial contamination of streams and other water bodies.

INSECTS:

While the Asian native hemlock woolly adelgid has been in the news for well over a decade in the Southern Appalachians, and has destroyed most of our hemlock forests, there are many other exotic pests that have been infesting our forests and wreaking havoc on native forest communities. Much like the adelgid, insects such as emerald ash borer threaten to destroy most of our native ash trees in the north Georgia mountains and elsewhere. Emerald ash borer is believed to have been first introduced into the U.S. through packing material brought in through Michigan in 2002, and is now in 31 states, including Georgia. While the adult insects feed primarily on ash foliage, causing little damage, the larvae feed on the inner bark, disrupting the flow of nutrients and the tree’s ability to transport water. The imidacloprid insecticide that works on hemlocks is also an option for emerald ash borer. Like hemlocks, many of our ash trees in residential areas will likely remain healthy if homeowners regularly treat with insecticides, or where communities can find funding to treat ash trees in parks and urban settings. We will likely see extensive mortality of ash trees in our forests because the Forest Service lacks the funding and capacity to treat most of our ash trees.

Walnut twig beetle has also been discovered on the Tennessee-North Carolina border near the Chattahoochee, and is a vector for a fungus known as thousand cankers disease. The fungus is introduced through spores carried by the beetle, which then disrupts nutrient flow, and ultimately kills the tree. Though this beetle is native to the American west, its inexplicable jump to Tennessee in 2010 has caused great concern for our eastern walnuts. Its continued spread is likely.

Laurel wilt disease is another exotic insect-borne disease that has been spreading in Georgia since its introduction into the port of Savannah in 2003. Transmitted by the invasive Asian redbay ambrosia beetle, this disease has caused massive mortality of redbay in the coastal plain and has now spread throughout the southeast. It attacks other members of the laurel family as well, but for our north Georgia mountains the species of most concern is sassafras. Ambrosia beetles are spreading inland, and have killed sassafras in the absence of redbay.

While there are many other species of native trees in trouble from non-native insects and diseases, the changing climate will likely exacerbate these infestations. Strategies for saving many of our native trees will continue to evolve over time, and will no doubt involve an increased commitment and partnership from government agencies and communities.

URBANIZATION AND DEVELOPMENT

According to the 2007 U.S. Forest Service report, National Forests on the Edge by Stein et al., between 2000 and 2030 a substantial increase in housing density will occur on more than 21.7 million acres of rural private land located within 10 miles of national forests on the lower 48 United States. The Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests are expected to see the second highest increase of the 155 national forests – 35 percent – in the amount of development on private lands within 10 miles of the forest. Close behind are the adjacent Cherokee and Nantahala-Pisgah National Forests.

Projections for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests are not surprising given Atlanta’s current and projected growth. Metro Atlanta’s population is projected to grow from its current population of almost five million to nine million in the next 30 years. Several of the 29 counties that make up the greater metropolitan Atlanta area are close to or adjacent to the southern edge of the Chattahoochee, and several of these counties, such as Cherokee, Pickens, Dawson, and Hall, are already among the fastest growing. Proximity to such a large urban population led to the Chattahoochee’s designation within the Forest Service as an “urban national forest,” meaning that it is within an hour’s drive for over a million people. As these rural counties fragment with the loss of forest and farmland, and as road and housing densities increase, new pressures are put on the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests for recreation and resources. This increased fragmentation only makes protection of Georgia’s Mountain Treasures more important.

Photo by Jess Riddle & SouthWings
Photo by Jess Riddle & SouthWings

RESOURCE EXTRACTION

The Hidden Creek Campground illustrates how different values of a natural area can be lost and found. Drive up to the Hidden Creek Mountain Treasure today (page 25), and you’re greeted by a little loop road through the woods lined with short spurs. In 1964, right after the Accelerated Works Program built the campground, those spurs each had a picnic table, fire ring, and tent pad. The setting was scenic. Dry Creek, whose intermittent flow gives the area its name, came down from the mountains right beside the campsites. The high canopy of oaks, hickories, and beech that shaded the area was one of the oldest on the Armuchee Ranger District. Decades earlier, iron furnaces, saw mills, and the plow consumed most sites with such fine potential for helping people relax and enjoy themselves.

By 2006, the campground had been decommissioned, but the area retained its scenic value and still saw use for picnicking and camping. At that time, a proposal came forward that included harvesting the stand containing the old campground. The proposal missed what had been seen 50 years earlier. It would have compromised the area’s unique character and damaged the scenic value for decades to come. Fortunately, public input and a field trip led to recognition of the area’s value. Timber harvests in low diversity stands of planted pines remained in the project to help restore those sites, but the harvests along Dry Creek were dropped. Today, the area remains as inviting as ever.

Timber harvests, and management in general, have become more ecologically sensitive on the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests since the last edition of Georgia’s Mountain Treasures. However, timber harvests and associated road-building activities still create erosion, compact soils, fragment habitats, invite non-native invasive plants, and interfere with natural ecosystem processes. They are not appropriate for many Mountain Treasures. In other Mountain Treasures, limited logging may be appropriate for purposes like woodland ecosystem restoration, but there still need to be limits guided by restoration goals. Ninety-eight percent of Georgia is open to timber harvests and development. Given all the 21st-century threats to the Southern Appalachian landscape and its rich biodiversity, careful planning is necessary to set aside scenic areas, biological corridors and watersheds

Photo by Larry Winslett – www.larrywinslettphotography.com
Photo by Larry Winslett – www.larrywinslettphotography.com

HOW TO PROTECT WILD AREAS

PROTECTING PUBLIC LANDS THROUGH THE WILDERNESS ACT OF 1964

There are many ways to protect wild places, but historically nothing has been more important to the long-term protection of them than the 1964 Wilderness Act. This Act was passed “In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States…leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”

That was the why of it. Here is the what: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

In that Act, a planetary first, Congress established a National Wilderness Preservation System and included within it an initial 9.1 million acres. Wilderness could also only be designated through Congressional legislation. Since the Act’s passage, the system has grown to almost 110 million acres, with almost half of that in Alaska. The 1964 Act only designated three Wilderness Areas in the east: two on the Pisgah National Forest: 7,655 acres in a place called the Linville Gorge and another 13,400 acres at Shining Rock.

Populations in the eastern U.S. continued to grow in the years following the Wilderness Act, becoming more mobile and demanding more wild places in which to escape urbanization. Despite citizen entreaties to Congress for more eastern Wilderness designations, the Forest Service adopted its own interpretation of the Wilderness Act. In what came to be known as the “purity theory,” the Forest Service declared that no land with evidence of past human impact was eligible for wilderness designation, even going so far as to state that no national forest land in the eastern part of the U.S. should be considered for wilderness. In 1971 the Forest Service drafted a bill that sought to essentially make their “purity theory” law.

But if there was any confusion about what the 1964 Act meant and intended, Congress eliminated it with the passage of the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act in 1975. With the 1975 Act, Congress stated its intention to consider lands that were wild again, not just those that had been wild forever. For example, Shining Rock Wilderness in North Carolina was included in the initial 1964 Act, even though timber from a portion of the boundary drainage was being logged when the Act was signed. This view of Wilderness eligibility endured as Congress continued to designate new Wilderness Areas that had seen logging, roads, or other exploitation. The new Act designated 15 new Wilderness Areas in the eastern U.S., including north Georgia’s 35,000-acre Cohutta Wilderness (2,940 acres were added to this Wilderness in later legislation).

Prior to the 1975 Eastern Wilderness Areas Act, the Forest Service had launched the RARE process (for Roadless Area Review and Evaluation), starting with 1,149 potential areas containing 56 million acres. When the agency called the process complete, it designated a meager 274 wilderness study areas totaling 12.3 million acres across the entire Forest Service system. The flaws in the process were clear to citizens who demanded that it be redone. They argued that the analysis gave especially short shrift to deserving areas in the national grasslands and in the forest lands of the eastern U.S.

In response, the agency initiated RARE II. When that review was completed in 1979, the agency identified 2,919 areas – around 62 million acres – as lands having wilderness characteristics, a far cry from the findings of the earlier review. Of these, the Forest Service recommended Wilderness designation on 15 million acres, called for further planning consideration for 11 million acres, and proposed non-wilderness management for the remaining 36 million acres. Though it was a vast improvement over the original RARE, citizens still found much to fault in
RARE II. And when forest Wilderness legislation came up for consideration in the years following, Congress went beyond the agency recommendations more often than not in designating Wilderness. The RARE II review, then, established a starting point for future wilderness protection efforts on national forests.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF PROTECTING NATIONAL FOREST LANDS IN GEORGIA

In Georgia, the RARE II inventory identified close to 220,000 roadless acres, yet recommended only 39,000 of those acres for Wilderness. Georgia’s first Wilderness Act came in 1984, when north Georgia Congressman Ed Jenkins introduced legislation that protected 12,000 acres of the Southern Nantahala Wilderness on the North Carolina state line (North Carolina’s Wilderness bill that year added similar acreage on the North Carolina side) and added 2,000 acres to the Ellicott Rock Wilderness (designated with the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act of 1975). Just two years later in 1986, Congressman Jenkins introduced legislation to protect an additional 42,500 acres with another Georgia Wilderness Bill. Congressman Jenkins went to work for Georgia Wilderness again in 1991 with the Chattahoochee National Forest Protection Act. This bill recommended 24,200 acres of new Wilderness along with 30,000 acres of National Recreation and Scenic Areas.

With this final bill in Jenkin’s legacy, there are now 116,521 acres of designated Wilderness in north Georgia. But RARE II inventoried 220,000 acres of potential Wilderness in 1978, and Jenkin’s legislation only permanently protected 84,000 acres of this as Wilderness. Thirty thousand of these acres were also given some level of protection with Coosa Bald Scenic area and the Ed Jenkins National Recreation Area (NRA). Unfortunately significant swaths of the remaining 100,000 acres have been logged and roaded. By 1995 the Forest Service only
recognized 11,000 acres as roadless. Georgia ForestWatch challenged the Forest Service’s determination which turned on the definition of “roadless” at the time: “an area with no more than a half mile of improved road per 1,000 acres.” With Georgia ForestWatch’s input and mapping, the Forest Service eventually recalculated its inventory to 63,000 acres. Still, the Forest Service only recommended that 8,000 of those acres be designated as Wilderness, and those were all additions to existing Wilderness Areas. Our state’s roadless areas have changed in the decades since RARE II, and with far too few exceptions, the changes have been losses, and some of them major ones.

The areas identified with the RARE II process are listed on the next page, followed by their subsequent designation, if any, with the Jenkins Wilderness bills of 1984, 1986 and 1991. If they were not designated, their roadless status is listed with the current forest plan. The difference between RARE II acreage and Wilderness/NRA/Scenic/ Roadless is the acreage lost to road building since RARE II. In some areas, bills actually designated more than the RARE II acreage, which is part of the flexibility of the Wilderness Act.

Photo by Jess Riddle
Photo by Jess Riddle

AREAS IDENTIFIED WITH THE RARE II PROCESS

Chattahoochee National ForestRARE IIWildernessRoadless in Current Plan
Tray Mountain36,30010,4149,034
Chattahoochee River (Mark Trail)23,05016,8800
Southern Nantahala19,67011,6339,383
Rich Mountain16,88010,3435,330
Rabun Bald16,00506,922
Raven Cliffs15,8509,1136,041
Brasstown12,67012,9490
Springer Mountain11,00023,300(NRA) 9,064
Blood Mountain10,2757,8001854
Licklog8,10000
Mill Creek7,04500
Mountaintown6,835012,174
Buzzard Knob6,44000
Overflow (Three Forks)4,60000
Ellicott Rock Extension4,0000704
Board Camp3,88000
Rand Mountain (Big Mountain)3,50002,923
Worley Ridge3,00000
Anna Ruby3,00000
Hemp Top2,8002,9400
Blackwell2,60000
Little Rock1,50000
Cohutta Wilderness*32,2930
Wilson Cove563
Ken Mountain527
Duck Branch190
Foster Branch165
TOTAL WILDERNESS219,000116,52164,784

* The Cohutta Wilderness was designated prior to RAREII except for the Hemp Top area.

THE 2012 FOREST PLANNING RULE: AN OPPORTUNITY FOR PROTECTION

The final 2012 Forest Planning Rule – which guides forest plan revision – was developed after over two years of public input and over 300,000 public comments. This rule replaced the 1982 Planning Rule, and has a significant increased emphasis on collaboration, sciencebased decision making, protecting and enhancing water resources, increased public involvement, sustainable recreation, and partnerships.

Perhaps most importantly for Georgia’s Mountain Treasures are the new directives regarding roadless inventories. Under the 2012 directives the agency’s inventory is to be “reasonably broad and inclusive” to capture all areas which may have one or more Wilderness characteristics. While inventoried areas will not all be carried forward as Wilderness candidates, recognition of Wilderness values, increasingly rare in light of the threats mentioned above, suggests the area should be given careful consideration during plan revision. Most of the areas listed here should qualify under the 2012 roadless inventory criteria. The Mountain Treasures presented in this report were identified using those criteria as a guide. Some, though not all, of these areas may well qualify for protection under the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act. But there is some level of uncertainty about permanent protection for any of these areas because attempts are consistently being made in Congress to retract the Roadless Rule, open Wilderness areas to high impact recreation and increased access, as well as sell off our public lands.

OTHER PROTECTIONS

While Wilderness is the highest form of protection that can be given to an area, this designation is not always compatible with preexisting uses, restoration needs, or recreational activities not allowed by the Wilderness Act. There are also areas where restoration goals are of paramount importance, where active management is necessary to return the area to a native forest type, or where a specific threatened or endangered species requires intervention in order to create or restore specific habitat.

The goal for the protection of Mountain Treasures areas is some level of protection, whether it be Wilderness, designated old-growth, roadless, research natural areas, scenic areas, National Recreation Areas, or protective prescriptions in the Forest Plan. For example, during the last management plan revision for the Chattahoochee, Georgia ForestWatch mapped and described 235,000 acres of Mountain Treasures that we felt deserved some level of protection. Of these 235,000 acres, we recommended roughly only 36,000 acres for Wilderness. Working with many other forest stakeholders in Georgia, ForestWatch further recommended specific management prescriptions for all other Mountain Treasures areas. Dependent upon what we considered as the most important ecological, scenic, or recreational values of each individual area, we then recommended management prescriptions that emphasized these values. Georgia has a history of protecting areas with other designations, such as the Coosa Bald Scenic Area and the Ed Jenkins National Recreation Area. These designations emphasize conservation and recreational values over resource extraction, while allowing some management options for restoration forestry. Such designations can also accommodate mountain bike use, and open roads within them, as well as management for game. It is important before and during the planning process that forest stakeholders coordinate and communicate so that recommendations made in the plan can have broad support and ensure each area’s long-term protection.

Photo by Cliff Shaw
Photo by Cliff Shaw

WILDLAND CLUSTERS IN THE CHATTAHOOCHEE-OCONEE NATIONAL FORESTS

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