By Larry Thomas
Last night I woke up at 3:10 am and was so pleased to see the sky filled with stars. The first night in a long time, because of the weather pattern we have been experiencing. Got out of bed, bundled up because of the very cool night air and headed outside to enjoy looking at the sky with its abundance of stars and the Milky Way crossing the sky right over my head. It was a wonderful experience heightened by seeing eight shooting stars and listening to the owls calling during the over an hour that I was out there. Many astronomers travel to this area because of the dark skies.
Actions in July that will be of interest to West Virginia Highlands Conservancy members.
Big Rock Project – This proposed project is in the Gauley Ranger District within the Cranberry River watershed north of Richwood in Nicholas and Webster Counties and is to provide diverse early successional forest (clearcutting w/reserves 1342 acres), improve forest health and growth (traditional cut 702 acres and helicopter thin 491 acres) and provide water sources for wildlife (creation of 20 vernal pools).
WVHC took another pretty big step and has filed a formal objection to the Forest Service’s Big Rock Project. As we noted in our previous comments on the Big Rock project, WVHC believes that integrated timber management projects like the Big Rock Project can be compatible with, or at least not contradictory to, WVHC’s mission and values. But as we pointed out in our previously filed comments, the draft Environmental Assessment (EA) that was circulated for public review had several critical problems related to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis and the protection of sensitive environmental resources. In response to our comments, the Forest Service addressed some of the flaws in its final EA and supporting documents.
Part of this effort with respect to NEPA involves proposed new regulations (see this recent news release: https://www.fs.fed.us/news/releases/usda-proposes-bold-moves-improve-forests-management-grasslands; there is also a story about it on p. 6 of this issue). But even before the new regulations have been finalized, the agency is cutting back on the amount of time and effort that it puts into its NEPA analyses. It appears that Big Rock and other recently proposed projects on the Monongahela have been affected by this emphasis on doing more with less.
We are not opposed in principle to these activities, as they are allowed and encouraged by the Forest Plan. However, we identified critical problems in the following areas that were the basis for filing our objection.
• Skid road decommissioning
• Ground-Based Harvest Activity on Steep Slopes
• Roads on Steep Slopes
• Threatened, Endangered, and Sensitive Species
Spruce Mountain Grouse Management Area – This proposed project is in the Potomac Ranger District west and southwest of Spruce Knob Lake and is near the community of Osceola, WV. The objective of the project is to restore and maintain ruffed grouse habitat in the existing management area by increasing early successional habitat for cover and enhancing species diversity to increase foraging opportunities.
Our comments addressed the Draft Environmental Assessment for the project and included the commitment to resource protection measures for sensitive resources, adverse impacts to commercial timber harvest in West Virginia northern flying squirrel habitat, Blue Ridge St. John’s Wort and Pearl Dace, and the prevention and control of non-native invasive species infestations.
WVHC did not formally object to the Spruce Mountain Grouse Management Area Project because the Forest Service staff provided answers to our remaining questions that we raised concerning the project.
We did share one lingering concern we had with the way the Forest Service defined and delineated suitable habitat for the West Virginia northern flying squirrel. Based on their description, it appears that the Forest Service considered only areas with an overstory dominated by conifers to be suitable habitat. The Forest Service placed a 60 m “buffer” around overstory conifers but did not consider that buffer to be suitable habitat.
This approach is not consistent with the approach laid out by the USFWS in the updated recovery plan, nor is it consistent with the approach the Forest Service has followed since the update to the recovery plan in 2001. We were however willing to give the Forest Service the benefit of the doubt on including a 60 m buffer instead of the 80 m buffer that has been used to date. The 80 m buffer was instituted primarily to provide an extra safety factor, and it appears that the Forest Service has developed a better scientific rationale for the 60 m buffer. But again, we emphasized that the buffer is part of suitable habitat and, therefore, is subject to the protections contained in Forest Plan Standard TE64.
WVHC sent a letter thanking the staff for their diligent efforts to address all stakeholder concerns prior to making a final decision on the project. The staff worked hard to overcome obstacles and resolve issues in a way that creates a win-win situation for the Forest Service and stakeholders.
Other activities followed and that were reported in the July Highlands Voice were:
Proposed Pump Storage Project in Tucker County, West Virginia – No further action has been noted.
Proposed Black Rock Industrial Wind Project – Application for a permit has been filed with the Public Service Commission of West Virginia.
This year continues to be another busy year for the Conservancy and the highlands of West Virginia and we will keep you informed through the Voice as events occur,