Highlands Conservancy Finds Flaws in Proposed Spruce Mountain Grouse Management Area Project

By John McFerrin

The United States Forest Service wants to create and maintain habitat for Ruffed Grouse.  In order to do this, it has proposed its Spruce Mountain Grouse Management Area Project. The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy has commented on the project, generally supporting the project while having some reservations.

The project is located west and southwest of Spruce Knob Lake.  According to the Forest Service it intends to “conduct approximately 354 acres of regeneration harvests and associated selective herbicide treatments, 10 acres of thinning, 68 acres of cut-back borders, 625 acres of non-commercial timber stand improvement; construct 2.1 miles of temporary road; add 0.4 miles of an existing road corridor to the Forest transportation system as a National Forest System Road (FSR); maintain 3.6 miles of FSR 916; create, expand, and maintain wildlife openings; develop wetland areas for wildlife benefit; complete watershed and riparian restoration improvement activities including, large woody material placement; and ancillary activities.”

The point of the project, according to the Forest Service, is to improve habitat for Ruffed Grouse.  Because the same habit that Ruffed Grouse prefer is also used by assorted other species, the project will help them as well.  According to the Draft Environmental Assessment that the Forest Service prepared, Ruffed Grouse need a mixture that has some places with young forested areas, some shrubs and small trees, some mature forests that produce food, some open fields, and some conifer patches such as spruce and hemlock to provide cover during the winter.

In general, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy supported the project.  In its comments, it said,

In general, WVHC supports work that enhances habitat for the wildlife species that help to draw visitors to the Highlands.  The Forest Service’s proposed project for the Spruce Mountain Grouse Management Area has the potential to provide beneficial habitat for grouse and other species that require early successional habitat.  Additionally, the project area lies in the heart of the central Appalachian red spruce ecosystem.  Activities that enhance and connect red spruce habitats are crucial for the restoration of this ecosystem.  We are heartened by the inclusion of red spruce restoration activities in the proposed project.

The support was not, however, unconditional. The comments noted several areas where the project needed to be improved.

The first difficulty is the lack of commitment to measures to protect sensitive resources.  The Environmental Assessment contains an appendix which lists several measures that the Forest Service has identified as useful in protecting sensitive resources.  These include such things as scenic impacts, herbicide use, and soil loss.  While the Environmental Assessment identifies things it could do to avoid these impacts, it does not actually commit itself to actually doing them.

For example, the appendix suggests that skid roads that would be used to remove timber would be decommissioned using several practices that are listed in the appendix.  The text of the Environmental Assessment itself, however, does not commit to using these more protective methods.  At some points it even assumes that less protective methods would be used.

The squishiness of the Forest Service’s commitment to, among other things, decommissioning the skid roads comes into play in the impacts upon the Pearl Dace, a Regional Forester’s Sensitive Species. The Environmental Assessment says that the Project “could have implications to the viability of this population.”  The cure for this problem is for the Forest Service to make a firm commitment to decommissioning the skid roads (making erosion and sedimentation less severe) as well as taking more specific measures to protect the Pearl Dace.

The most problematic difficulty with the Project is its impact on the West Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel.  In order to thrive, the Flying Squirrel requires that the forest canopy remain intact.  The Flying Squirrel is specifically addressed in the Forest Plan (the overall planning document that dictates how the Monongahela National Forest is managed). The Forest Plan limits activity that would have any adverse impact upon the Flying Squirrel.

Many of the cuts that are proposed are essentially clearcuts. In preparing its comments, the Highlands Conservancy calculated that the proposed operation would remove 140 acres of forest canopy within Flying Squirrel habitat.  This puts the project at odds with the squirrel protection mandate found in the Forest Plan.  To fix this problem, the comments make several suggestions of actions that should be eliminated from the Spruce Mountain Grouse Management Area Project. The actions to be eliminated would all result in more forest canopy remaining intact.

The comments also criticize the Project’s treatment of the Blue Ridge St. John’s wort, a Regional Forester’s Sensitive Species.  The Environmental Assessment identifies places within the Project area where it occurs.  It does not, however, commit to any specific measures to protect it during the project.  Without any plan for specific measures to protect it, the species will probably disappear from the Project area.  This would put the Project at odds with the Forest Plan.

Finally, the Project is inadequate in how it intends to address non-native invasive species.  When there is new disturbance, as there will be in this project, these species often invade and become established.  If there are infestations nearby seeds can be carried in by vehicles and equipment.  The Forest Plan has requirements that all projects avoid allowing invasive species to spread or become established.

This Environmental Assessment has some suggestions on achieving this goal.  They are not enough, however, to avoid problems with invasive species.  The Conservancy’s comments suggested several specific steps the Forest Service should take to address problems with invasive species.