Mountain wildlife corridor sought

Coalition proposes protecting 2.8 million acres from logging

May 05, 2002|By Stacy Shelton | Stacy Shelton,COX NEWS SERVICE

FLAT ROCK, N.C. - More than a dozen environmental groups and attorney Robert Kennedy Jr. have launched a conservation proposal, called the great Forest, for the southern Appalachian Mountains that would protect large tracts from developers and loggers, creating a wildlife corridor from Alabama to Virginia.

Of the nearly 6 million acres of national forest in the swath, the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition proposes protecting nearly half - or 2.8 million acres - from future logging and road-building.

Some of that land is in North Georgia, in the Chattahoochee National Forest and Cohutta Wilderness. But most of the targeted land, about 85 percent, is in private hands, coalition members said. They propose that the federal government buy land from willing sellers, or manage it through conservation trusts that offer tax incentives.

The proposal, which has been seven years in the making, was created by 18 environmental organizations in the Southeast. It will require the approval of Congress or cooperation from states and counties involved.

`Tiny islands of nature'

Amy Belanger, director of the coalition, said the southern Appalachians are fragmented, leaving "tiny islands of nature in a sea of urban sprawl," and cutting off important migratory routes for wolves, bears and other animals.

The coalition, which includes the Georgia Forest Watch and the Southern Environmental Law Center, hopes to influence decisions on public land management. Six of the nine national forests are up for a periodic review by the U.S. Forest service of their forestry plans.

Final plans are expected next year, but the public will have a chance to comment before then. Once they're set, the forestry plans will determine how those forests are managed for the next 15 years.

The recent Forest Summit meeting was held in the heart of the southern Appalachians and near North Carolina's Nantahala National Forest. It's also surrounded by local logging companies that harvest in nearby national forests.

A central focus of the debate between the environmental advocates who support the Great Forest vision and those who oppose it will be how much timbering should be permitted.

Gary Pierson, director of planning for the southern region of the U.S. Forest Service, said there are "a number of small companies" dependent on harvesting national forest timber.

Pierson, who spoke at the meeting, also said some form of active management is necessary to protect the forests' ecosystems.

Differences of opinion

While the Forest Service and environmentalists agree on the forests' importance for things like recreation and water quality, "There's a difference in opinion of what constitutes protection," Pierson said.

Kennedy, an environmental lawyer for the Hudson Riverkeeper in New York, was applauded frequently during his passionate defense of strong environmental protections. He said, "Good environmental policy is always 100 percent identical to good economic policy, if you take a long-term view." Kennedy said the Bush administration would not be sympathetic to the Great Forest proposal, but local groups could make it happen.

Dr. Randall White of Atlanta, a physician and board member of Georgia Forest Watch who attended the summit, said the vision is critical to metro Atlantans.

"More people visit Chattahoochee National Forest than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park [the most visited in the national park system]," he said. "People want to have places to go and escape the environmental disaster that Atlanta has become."

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