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It Shouldn’t Take A Lawsuit to Make the Forest Service Comply With Federal Law

A letter to MountainTrue supporters from our Public Lands Field Biologist, Josh Kelly:

Pictured above: Part of the Nantahala National Forest within the scope of the Southside Timber Project. Photo credit: Will Harlan, Center for Biological Diversity, via Michaela Gregory of the Southern Environmental Law Center.  

I’m writing to let you know that MountainTrue is part of a coalition of conservation groups that filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service to prevent the agency from logging a sensitive area of the Nantahala National Forest in violation of federal law. 


The lawsuit was filed this morning, January 31, in the federal district court for the Western District of North Carolina by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of MountainTrue, the Center for Biological Diversity, Chattooga Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, and Sierra Club


The lawsuit addresses the Southside Timber Project, which aims to log areas near the Whitewater River in the Nantahala National Forest. The landscape boasts stunning waterfalls, towering oak trees, and critical habitat for rare species. 


The Southside Timber Project is not only massively unpopular but is also inconsistent with the recently updated Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan. Limiting logging in the Whitewater River and surrounding areas was one of the things the Forest Plan got right. Now, the Forest Service is poised to disregard its own Plan to pursue its outdated mission of turning old forests into young ones. The Forest Service believes that the new Forest Plan doesn’t apply to the Southside Project, but we insist that for the new plan to have any meaning at all, it must apply.  


MountainTrue does not oppose logging on principle, and we don’t take litigation lightly. However, with both the Forest Plan and this Southside Timber Project, Forest Service leaders have put commercial logging first and ignored federal law and overwhelming public support for conserving our most beloved natural areas and landscapes. Fixing these problems would have only removed 50 acres from over 300 acres of logging. They have even ignored concerns from the agency’s own scientists about the impact logging could have on the already imperiled Blue Ridge lineage of the green salamander. And don’t be fooled by the Forest Service’s claims that the project will benefit the Golden-Winged Warbler. There are no known populations of this bird in the project area, and it is well known that there must be a population within two miles of new habitat for it to become occupied.


There are one million acres in Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests. That’s plenty of land to accommodate sustainable logging practices and create new young forest habitat for deer and grouse without destroying an area that the Forest Service itself has deemed an ‘exceptional ecological community’ with ‘features that are not found anywhere else in […] the Eastern United States.’ 


We have opposed the Southside Timber Project from the beginning. MountainTrue analyzed the project to assess the damage it would cause to these important habitats and filed formal objections. We even offered to pay the Forest Service for the timber rights to 37 acres to keep old-growth and rare species habitat within the project area standing and intact. The Southside Project is the only example I know of in my 16-year career where the Forest Service documented the presence of old-growth forest and chose to cut it anyway. The decision to log inside a Special Interest Area and Wild and Scenic River Corridor follows the same stubborn and short-sighted pattern. 


The Southside Project was a bad project when the Forest Service first proposed it, and it is still a bad project today. Unfortunately, it looks like it’s going to take a public interest lawsuit to get the Forest Service to act responsibly and comply with federal law. 



Josh Kelly, MountainTrue Public Lands Field Biologist



Click here to read the joint statement about this litigation released on January 31, 2024, by the Southern Environmental Law Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Chattooga Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, MountainTrue, and Sierra Club.

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