David Govus and Jess Riddle bounded off the mountain ridge and into the forest below filled with tulip poplars, white oaks, Ohio buckeyes and black cherry trees and carpeted with a spongy mix of leaves, ferns and bark. The U.S. Forest Service, as part of the largest timbering operation in this Southern Appalachian region in at least a decade, wants to log a 40-acre stand to help "rejuvenate" the woods.
Govus and Riddle, opponents of the plan, descended deeper into the Chattahoochee National Forest.
"Ooooh, look at that one," Govus, a board member of Georgia ForestWatch, said upon discovering a 100-foot-tall white ash. "This is a pretty nice forest here. I don't know if that turns on a lot of people, but it's like a cathedral to me."
The Forest Service's stated goal is to restore, in ever-larger chunks, the overall health of the North Georgia forest. An environmental assessment released last month calls for restoration of native plants and an improved habitat for wildlife. The public has until Feb. 5 to comment on the 202-page plan that has touched off a debate about who can best ensure the health of a forest, man or Mother Nature?
Under the current plan, one of every five trees along the steep slope below Duncan Ridge, a popular hiking trail, would come down. Elsewhere, as much as 80 percent of wooded tracts would be logged. In all, 2,600 acres in the Cooper Creek watershed would be thinned to "improve forest health," the Forest Service says. And the underneath brush across 12,000 acres would be burned over the next decade.
The plan targets some old-growth forest where trees more than 100 years old soar skyward. Logging would be allowed near pristine trout streams. More than five miles of temporary roads would be gouged from the forest floor. Skidders and logging trucks would further mar the landscape. Herbicides would be used to keep habitats free of unwanted species, such as white pines. And heavy rains — 18 inches fell near Duncan Ridge in December — fuel erosion fears.
"This is one of the worst projects I've ever seen," said Patrick Hunter, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. "It will convert some of the healthiest, oldest and most beautiful areas of the forest into just briers and stump sprouts for a long time. The forest is going to get healthier and age better if we just leave it alone. The forest can take care of itself."
And therein lies the crux of the dispute: Can forests thrive on their own? Should they be restored to a previous condition? Does the government need to manage a forest?
"We set broad, ecological restoration goals," said Andy Baker, the forest ranger for a huge swath of the Chattahoochee. "We try to determine what it looked like and what should it look like. The departure from historical norms was pretty large in many cases. The majority of the tree canopy is very dense and, in many cases, uncharacteristic of the historic conditions."
Lightning periodically thinned the Chattahoochee during the centuries when Cherokee and Creek Indians roamed North Georgia. The federal government abetted land-covetous white farmers and, later, gold prospectors in chasing the Indians off the land. Hydraulic mining for gold damaged streams. Nothing, though, transformed the Southern Appalachians like logging.
Timber companies began buying up the mountains in the late 1800s for as little as $1 an acre. Railroads crisscrossed the mountains allowing for easier transport of logs to mills and markets. Loggers, also keen to turn bark into tannic acid for leather, about stripped the mountains bare by the early 20th century.
In 1911, the Forest Service bought 31,000 acres (at $7 an acre) in Fannin, Gilmer, Lumpkin and Union counties. The Chattahoochee National Forest was officially created a quarter-century later by President Franklin Roosevelt. Today, the Chattahoochee forest sprawls across 18 counties, 750,000 acres and about two-thirds of Georgia's northern fringe.
Hikers, campers, mountain bikers and ATV enthusiasts enjoy hundreds of miles of trails, including the Appalachian Trail. Anglers call it "a trout fisherman's paradise," with the state and feds stocking rainbows and browns along some of the 4,000 miles of streams. Commercial logging is also allowed.
The Southern Appalachians are one of the world's most biologically diverse regions, with 10,000 different species of fungi, salamanders, spiders, snails, ferns, mosses and flowering plants. More than 100 native trees are found throughout the forests.
It's Baker job, as ranger for the Blue Ridge mountain district, to balance the forest's myriad roles. The Forest Service began analyzing the 29,600-acre Cooper Creek watershed five years ago. The agency determined that most of the tract isn't "healthy." And less than 1 percent of the area contains young forest deemed essential for songbirds, deer, wild turkey and ruffed grouse.
"The deer population has declined pretty significantly over the past 20, 25 years. Ruffed grouse and other hunted species are becoming very rare," said Jim Wentworth, the district's wildlife biologist. "We can reverse that trend by taking a small part of this watershed and creating some of those young forest conditions."
The Forest Service aims to tackle white pines, in particular, an "off-site" species that predominates in 22 percent of the targeted area. Tree canopy is so dense throughout 88 percent of the region, the agency reports, that little or no light reaches the ground, limiting the forest's biodiversity and wildlife habitat.
Loggers would thin 1,700 acres, hauling away the timber with skidders and trucks. An additional 900 acres, mostly along steeper hillsides, would also be thinned, but without the construction of roads and loading areas. The Forest Service plans to build 5 miles of temporary roads and reconstruct — widen, add drainage — 2.8 miles of existing roads.
Fire, controlled burns to destroy low-lying trees, shrubs and grasses, would be the "single largest tool used" to restore the woods. Between 2,000 and 4,000 acres would be burned annually over a decade.
About 1,100 acres proposed for thinning were eliminated from the initial plan to reduce erosion and sediment concerns. No clear-cutting would be allowed. More than 1,800 acres would be designated old growth and left untouched. In addition, 6.7 miles of existing roads would be closed. The Forest Service expects to net only $25,000 — timber sales minus costs — from the project.
Govus and Riddle stopped the Toyota 4-Runner alongside Bryant Creek, a pristine cold-water stream considered the southernmost habitat for prized brook trout. It was raw and muddy with a number of "ephemeral streams" — temporary creeks created by too much rain — flowing into the creek. ATV and Jeep ruts gouged the dirt road surrounded by white pines, scarlet oaks and the ubiquitous rhododendron.
"My biggest concern about this project is that you're taking Georgia's best trout stream, (adding) a lot of temporary roads, skidder movements and huge storms, all of which creates the possibility of a lot of erosion and silt going into the creek," Govus said. "And they're going to take half of the timber on both sides of the creek. I don't see any purpose to that."
The Forest Service would leave a 25-foot buffer on both sides of Bryant Creek, as well as all creeks. No skidders or trucks would be allowed between 25 and 100 feet of the streams. About half of the trees in these quadrants could be cut down.
"There's a certain amount of trust in having worked with the Forest Service over the years, and they're not going to allow anything to happen that would jeopardize the native trout species up there," said Jim Harvey, the president of the Upper Chattahoochee chapter of Trout Unlimited who lives in Cobb County. "They have gone to great measure to protect the creek."
Critics aren't convinced and point to nearby Brawley Mountain, where the Forest Service cut 400 acres in an effort to enhance habitat for the golden-winged warbler, a migratory songbird that has all but disappeared from North Georgia. A grassy woodland with few trees was envisioned when logging commenced in 2010.
Brawley Mountain appeared somewhat denuded earlier this month, with red clay more prominent than grasslands. The Forest Service says it's premature to draw any ecological conclusions, adding that a golden-winged warbler was spotted there last year.
Critics, though, say open grasslands never existed at Brawley. They condemn the Forest Service for trying to manage the Chattahoochee, for messing with Mother Nature, for trying to play God.
"They say we need to open up the forest, but that will happen naturally," said Riddle, an old-growth expert with Georgia ForestWatch. "Trees are not immortal. They're going to die and open up the canopy. It's our contention that there's nothing wrong with the forest."