On February 18, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that the Forest Service failed to conduct the necessary population survey of rare and sensitive species before approving logging projects on the Chattahoochee National Forest. The ruling reverses a lower court ruling in the Northern District of Georgia.
The case, Sierra Club v. Martin, centers on clearcutting and associated road-building in the wild mountainous terrain of northern Georgia. Appellants include the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Georgia Forest Watch, Friends of Georgia, Armuchee Alliance, and the Rabun County Coalition to Save the Forest.
“This decision stops the Forest Service from continued logging in the 800,000-acre Chattahoochee National Forest without first ascertaining the effect on imperiled fish and wildlife throughout the forest,” said Eric Huber, attorney with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, who represented the plaintiffs. “It also sends the message that the Forest Service better obtain sound data throughout the twelve-state southern region before allowing any further logging there, since the same violations of law found in the Chattahoochee occur throughout the region.”
“Declining species such as brook trout, and migratory songbirds such as the corulean warbler, along with 30 other species are being harmed by the clearcut logging and the tons of sediment that erode from logging roads,” said Rene Voss, spokesman for the Sierra Club. “The highest court in the region finally agreed with us that the Forest Service’s logging program is illegal because it can’t ensure that many of our rarest species will not become endangered.”
“We applaud the decision,” said Brent Martin, Executive Director of Georgia Forest Watch. “It allows the Forest Service the historic opportunity to look at the forest from an ecosystem perspective and to weigh fully the results of actions which in the past have not been adequately evaluated. For far too long the Forest Service has downplayed the environmental impacts of its timber program on rare, threatened, and endangered species, and it is finally going to have to do its homework. This decision sends a message to the Forest Service that our national forests are no longer a playground for a budget-driven timber program; they are instead our last great opportunity to protect watersheds, rare species, and our truly last great places.”
“What is significant about this ruling,” says Voss, “is that the Forest Service is in violation of its own management plan by not conducting the necessary surveys before approving the timber sales.” The requirement to do these surveys is written into every forest plan in the southern region, which ranges from Texas to Virginia and includes public forests in Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
“The Forest Service should immediately halt all logging in the southern region forests until it can demonstrate no harm is coming to rare and sensitive species,” said Shirl Parsons, grassroots coordinator for the Southeast Office of The Wilderness Society. “This is what the public wants. This was apparent from the hundreds of comments to the Forest Service in response to the upcoming plan revision. They want more protection and less logging in the Chattahoochee National Forest.”
More specifically, the court ruled that the Forest Service’s decision to allow logging was arbitrary and in violation of the National Forest Management Act and its implementing regulations. The law and its regulations require the Forest Service to maintain viable populations of vertebrate species and maintain species diversity by keeping population inventories and measuring their trends. In addition, the court said that the forest Service did not follow its own forest plan requirements to keep or collect population inventory data of proposed, endangered, threatened, or sensitive species.