Wayne National Forest sign

Citizens are being invited to provide input into the latest update of the Wayne National Forest Management Plan, which was last updated in 2006. The plan is currently undergoing a revision process that probably will take over a year to complete, according to Wayne National Forest Supervisor Tony Scardina.

Ohio’s only national forest is located in three different areas of southeast Ohio – the Athens Unit of the Athens District, the Marietta Unit of the Athens District, and the Ironton (Lawrence County) District.

Recently, Athens area community members and activists have raised environmental concerns about the national forest planning process before local government leaders. They’ve asserted that the Wayne’s planning team has not incorporated community suggestions in past planning efforts.

Scardina and several community members spoke to Athens City Council at a meeting on Aug. 27 regarding the forest plan and the revision process. The first of several phases in the revision process, the “plan assessment” phase, began in April and is currently under way, Scardina said at the meeting. As a part of the assessment phase, community members are invited to participate in a series of working groups “to help compile information and input” for the assessment phase of the revision process.

The goal of this first stage is to gather information regarding needed changes that should be made to the forest plan, Scardina said. “It’s really an assessment of data, research and information about what has changed since our last plan,” he explained.

As an example of needed changes, Scardina said, since the last plan update “we have a lot more information about the threats of climate change. We have a lot more threats on the landscape from different invasive species.” The assessment, he added, will help determine whether people are engaging in recreation differently or using the landscape differently, and will result in a formal list of needed changes to be analyzed in phase two of the revision process.

An interdisciplinary team of experts with the forest, “from biologists to economists,” will help evaluate the 2006 plan, Scardina said, adding that there also will be many opportunities for public comment.

Nine working groups are available for community members to participate in, according to a news release issued Friday. The groups will cover various topics, including outdoor recreation, biodiversity and forest health, renewable energy, local culture and heritage, air quality, water quality and water supply, wilderness, and wild and scenic rivers, according to the release. “A citizen-initiated group will cover sustainable economies, ecological forest management and climate protection, while a technical group will focus their attention on non-renewable energy and minerals,” the release said. “Other citizens interested in forming working groups beyond those identified are welcomed to do so by coordinating with the Forest Plan Revision Team.”

Scardina said at the meeting that the revision process has been extended since the last revisions occured in 2006.

During the Aug. 27 meeting, Athens City Council Member Pete Kotses recalled participating in the revision process for the 2006 plan. “This is much different than what it was back then,” Kotses said. “I think it was a few sessions of sitting down and filling out some comments and that was it... This process is much more in depth.”

The goal, Scardina said, is to have a draft of “needed changes” together by February of next year, but “not a final plan.” A 45-day comment period would be allowed for that draft.

Scardina asked that community members continue to send in information regarding suggested changes to the plan.

Around May or June of next year, the forest will conduct a final assessment and release a final needed changes document, Scardina said, adding that it should take about eight to 10 months to “come up with options for addressing the areas where we saw a need for change,” for phase two of the revision process. Scardina predicted that it will take another eight to 10 months to start the NEPA – National Environmental Policy Act –analysis, the third phase of the process which involves completion of an environmental impact study of all proposed actions.

During the environmental impact study, three periods for public comment are required by law: one 60-day comment period at the beginning, another 90-day comment period after a draft “environmental impact statement” is released, and then another 60-day period for comments on the revised draft.

SEVERAL COMMUNITY MEMBERS SPOKE at the City Council meeting and have gone to other public officials to voice concerns regarding the 2006 forest plan. They argue that in the past, suggestions made regarding the 2006 plan have not been taken into account by forest planners, and that the health of the forest and its beneficiaries should be the main focus of the revised forest plan.

“In the past, vehement and voluminous community opposition to Wayne proposals has generally not made an iota of difference in Wayne management practices,” Heather Cantino, of the Athens County Fracking Action Network, said at the council meeting.

Extracted resources, Cantino said, are far less valuable than an intact forest. “In these times of rapidly escalating global climate breakdown and compromised air, water and public health, leaving the forest alone to provide ecosystem services must be the focus of forest planning,” Cantino said, arguing that the 2006 plan should be abandoned.

A 2008 Heartwood-commissioned economic analysis “is a scathing indictment of the 2006 plan, which allows extensive logging, inappropriate burning, and ATV expansion at the expense of the forest and of the valuable ecosystem services – including air and water purification, climate stabilization and low-impact recreation—that it could be better providing,” Cantino said.

“Ecosystem services are much more valuable per acre per year, valued in a New Jersey state study at an average of $1,800 per acre per year compared to $400 for forest extraction products,” Cantino continued, adding that those figures are old and don’t fully account for the current value of ecosystem benefits, which include carbon sequestration and air and water purification.

At an Athens County Commissioners meeting on Aug. 14, Cantino and other local activists urged the commissioners to sign a letter to the Wayne National Forest planning team asking that all relevant community input on the 2006 plan be considered in this year’s planning process, and that forest planners reach out to those in the community who have shared concerns with the current plan in the past. The letter also urged the planning team to use up-to-date science, economics and cultural data to evaluate forest activities per NEPA requirements.

When Cantino sent the letter to the forest planning team on Sept. 2, according to an email to which The NEWS was copied, it was signed by 33 local, state, regional and national environmentally concerned organizations, as well as 15 sustainable businesses and five additional individuals.

The Athens County Commissioners signed a letter of their own, dated Aug. 20, to send to the Wayne planning team, which echoed the concerns listed in the community letter they had been presented

Commissioner Lenny Eliason said at the meeting Aug. 14 that he wanted to draft a separate letter so that the commissioners could show support for the requests of the organizations and community members while adding a fourth request: that forest planners consider the impact that mineral rights leasing would have on development of the Bailey’s Mountain Bike Trail, a project that has been under discussion for some time.

At the Aug. 27 City Council meeting, council member Kotses said most citizens he’s spoken with share concerns over water quality more than anything.

Mayor Steve Patterson also said at the meeting that water quality is “one of those things that I hope is at the forefront” of the concerns during the planning process, along with the impacts of oil and gas extraction. “Climate change is real,” Patterson said, adding that if a city’s water source is compromised, “you’re done.”

FOREST SUPERVISOR SCARDINA said as a scientist, he recognizes the concerns raised by community members. “These impacts are of concern to us, and we’re going to take them serious,” Scardina said. “… There are some real concerns on that landscape, and we’ve been trying to deal with them, from invasives to acid mine drainage, things that we’ve been working on for decades.” Scardina said the forest management team is “behind the curve” when it comes to addressing environmental concerns, “and we need to start catching up.”

Interested community members can sign up for one or more of the working groups by submitting an email to the Forest Plan Revision Team at WaynePlanRevision@fs.fed.us, or by calling 740-753-0555. Orientation sessions have been planned for each working group starting Monday, Sept. 24, through Thursday, Oct. 4, according to the release. People are asked to sign up by this Friday, Sept. 14, in order to receive more information about a particular working group’s orientation session. Virtual opportunities will be available for many of the groups, for those unable to attend in person, according to the news release.

Forest Plan revision comments can be submitted any time in writing to the Wayne National Forest Plan Revision Team, 13700 US Hwy. 33, Nelsonville, OH 45764, or by calling Team Leader Lori Swiderski at 740-753-0859.

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