By Kent Karriker
The Monongahela National Forest has proposed to conduct over 2,600 acres of timber harvest and several hundred acres of prescribed fire on the Gauley District near the town of Richwood. The project is called the Gauley Healthy Forest Restoration project, or GHFR for short (see the brief summaries in Larry Thomas’ president’s column in the August and September 2020 issues of the Voice; see Forest Service project update here: project update; see ABRA Conservation Hub project page here: ABRA GHFR page).
The Forest Service describes the project as a set of activities that are designed to “reduce the expansion and threat of significant, damaging forest insects and disease; and reduce fuels buildup that cause uncharacteristic wildfire conditions” (see Schedule of Proposed Actions: SOPA). Of the 2,600+ acres of proposed timber harvesting, 351 acres would be clearcuts, and the rest would be various forms of commercial thinning. The prescribed fire areas partially overlap some of the timber harvest areas. In addition, over 60 miles of temporary roads would be needed to facilitate the timber harvest.
Early on in the project planning process, back in late 2019 and early 2020, the Forest Service raised the suspicion of environmental stakeholders when it abruptly cancelled the previously announced Gauley Integrated Spruce Restoration project (GISR) and substituted the Gauley Healthy Forest Restoration project in its place.
The GISR project would have involved noncommercial and commercial thinning to restore red spruce ecosystems, and it would have proceeded under the normal Environmental Assessment (EA) process, which includes multiple opportunities for public involvement. The Gauley Healthy Forest Restoration project, in contrast, focuses on even-aged management of hardwoods for timber production, and the Forest Service is proceeding under a Categorical Exclusion (CE), which limits opportunities for public involvement.
An Environmental Assessment is designed to determine whether the project would have any significant effects on the environment; if it would, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) must be prepared. A CE, in contrast, is used for certain categories of actions that the agency has already determined would not have any significant effects.
The Highlands Conservancy and several other environmental groups asked for basic information about the project, including the project boundary, locations of proposed timber harvest and fire units, and environmental resources in the project area, but the Forest Service declined to provide the information. Because of the difficulty in obtaining information through the normal informal channels, the groups, represented by the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance (ABRA), filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in July, 2020 (ABRA FOIA). Agencies are supposed to respond to FOIA requests within 20 working days, but due to a couple of requests for clarification by the Forest Service, the timeline dragged on, and the Forest Service finally responded to the FOIA request in November, 2020 (FOIA response). Although it was apparent that the Forest Service did not conduct a thorough search for information and failed to respond adequately to some aspects of the request, the information they provided was enough for us to identify several serious problems with the project.
The Project Does Not Fit the Proposed Categorical Exclusion
The Forest Service is proposing to use a Categorical Exclusion that was created by Section 603 of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, as amended by the 2018 Farm Bill. A project may use this Categorical Exclusion only if it “maximizes the retention of old growth and large trees, as appropriate for the forest type, to the extent that the trees promote stands that are resilient to insects and disease; considers the best available scientific information to maintain or restore the ecological integrity, including maintaining or restoring structure, function, composition, and connectivity…” (direct quote from the Act).
Recall that the project includes 351 acres of clearcutting, which obviously does not retain old growth and large trees, nor does it restore structure, function, composition and connectivity. While clearcutting is not prohibited throughout the project area, and the Forest Plan encourages it in some parts of the project area, such even-aged management does not constitute ecological restoration and should proceed under the normal Environmental Assessment process rather than the Section 603 Categorical Exclusion.
Also, the Categorical Exclusion is intended for projects that are “designed to reduce the risk or extent of, or increase the resilience to, insect or disease infestation in the areas” (again quoting from the Act). But the response to our FOIA included information that said the project area does not have enough insect and disease activity to justify creating harvest units to address the activity. The information also said that only 10 percent of the trees to be harvested from clearcuts and 25 percent of the trees to be harvested from thinning units are expected to be dead or dying trees. And the agency’s argument that the project would serve to prevent future outbreaks is weak and not supported by any factual information.
The Project Could Have Significant Effects on the Environment
A Project can use a CE only if the agency is certain that the project would not have any significant effects on the environment. Information contained in the FOIA response suggests that several significant effects could occur. The project would further degrade watershed hydrology in the area because of inadequate decommissioning of the temporary roads that would be used to yard the timber. The effects of such degradation on the endangered candy darter, which inhabits the project area, have not been evaluated. The project could also harm long-term productivity of the landscape because of nutrient depletion impacts related to soil disturbance, timber removal, and burning of brush piles. And it appears that potential impacts to the Wild and Scenic River-eligible North Fork of the Cherry have not been evaluated.
The Public Involvement Requirements of HFRA Section 603 Have Not Been Met
Unlike most other Categorical Exclusions, the Section 603 CE requires that the project be “scoped” (a public process that is used to help design the project). More specifically, Healthy Forest Restoration Act, section 603 states that projects must be “developed and implemented through a collaborative process that includes multiple interested persons representing diverse interests; and is transparent and nonexclusive…” HFRA section 603 also requires that a public notice be issued. Neither step has been completed. Instead, the Forest Service held private meetings or telephone conversations with five hand-picked stakeholder groups, none of which included any of the environmental stakeholders that have been actively involved in other recent Forest Service projects. Meeting notes indicate that in all of these interactions with the five stakeholder groups, the Forest Service basically told the groups what the agency had already decided to do, and largely ignored the groups’ suggestions for changes to the project.
In response to these problems, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, along with ABRA and the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, sent a letter to the Forest Service requesting that the project be re-scoped as an Environmental Assessment, which we contend is the appropriate level of analysis (EA request letter). The EA process is transparent and will allow for meaningful public input into the design of the project and the analysis of environmental effects. So far we have received no response to this letter. Because the letter was not submitted during any official comment period (of which there have been none), the Forest Service has no legal obligation to respond in any way. But we hope they will do the right thing and allow the public involvement that should have been allowed all along.
ABRA has also filed a formal appeal of the inadequate FOIA response (FOIA appeal), as well as a new FOIA request seeking new information (new FOIA). The agency has acknowledged receipt of the appeal, and we are currently within the 20 working-day response period allowed for both the appeal and the new request.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service’s current Schedule of Proposed Actions projects a final decision on the project in February, 2021 (last month by the time you are reading this). However, in the past they have projected several decision dates that have come and gone. As of this writing, no decision has been published.