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Forest Service pressing ahead with logging around lake

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/25/2022 9:42:39 PM
Modified: 4/25/2022 9:41:14 PM

WARREN, N.H. — The U.S. Forest Service released a revised environmental assessment of its plan to log 880 acres of land around Lake Tarleton, a high altitude lake in the White Mountain National Forest, after outspoken local criticism. A third comment period has begun, and controversy has mounted.

“It was disappointing,” said Peter Faletra of the revised environmental assessment. He and his wife, Elaine, live in Warren and use the lake frequently.

The lake spans the towns of Piermont and Warren. They are both members of the Lake Tarleton Coalition, a grassroots group opposed to the Forest Service’s plan.

“It was all or nothing, is what it seemed to me,” Elaine Faletra said.

As it did in the first draft assessment, the Forest Service concluded that there would be no significant impact on the “quality of the human environment,” a claim the coalition objects to. The Forest Service’s conclusion means that it will not pursue an “environmental impact statement,” which would typically require a hard look at the cumulative environmental consequences and a more comprehensive set of alternatives.

The mountain lake stretches over 315 acres, giving it the distinction as the largest in the Whites. The Forest Service owns most of the land around the lake, which is also home to a boys’ summer camp, three residences, a handful of seasonal camps and two public access points. It is among the cleanest lakes in the state, and hundreds take refuge in its beauty as they kayak, hike, swim and watch birds.

The Forest Service plans to log a total of 880 acres, but the intensity of the logging varies. 115 acres will be clearcut, while another 500 acres will see “group cuts” where one-acre sections of trees are cut, amounting to a total of 100 acres. “Treatments” ranging from commercial thinning to overstory removal will be applied to the remaining acres.

The project will yield an estimated 5 million board feet of timber. Producing high-quality timber is among the Forest Service’s stated goals, both nationally and in the Lake Tarleton project. Some of the revenue from the timber sales will flow into local and federal coffers.

But timber is just one of the agency’s goals; it also manages the forest for diverse wildlife habitats and recreation opportunities.

The Lake Tarleton Coalition had hoped for a complete set of alternatives, the Faletras said. The National Environmental Protection Act requires an environmental assessment to include alternatives, they pointed out.

Brooke Brown, the Forest Service’s Pemigewasset District Ranger, argued that her agency had engaged with the public since 2019 to design a plan that met residents’ concerns. Holding three comment periods is “above and beyond,” she said.

In its revised environmental assessment, the Forest Service added a section detailing the “consequences of no action.” Without active intervention, there would be a trend toward “a homogeneous even-aged structure and species mix” and a dearth of young forest habitat or wildlife openings, the Forest Service argues.

The revised assessment has significant overlap with the first draft. The new version gives a brief history of the forest, much of which was heavily logged in the 1980s and 1990s.The Forest Service reduced the maximum “group selection harvest cuts” from two acres to one. It also added a 100-foot no-cut buffer around Lake Tarleton, and stated that herbicides may be used in spot treatments if manual pulling is not enough to remove an invasive species.

The plan includes less controversial interventions as well — such as adding a forested buffer around Lake Katherine, a smaller lake near Lake Tarleton.

A history of conservation

Opponents to the project argue that the forest around Lake Tarleton merits special protection because the community fought to save it for its spectacular natural scenery.

“The White Mountain National Forest didn’t take the opportunity that they had to give this a serious second thought and learn from the community and learn the history of the lake,” said Zack Porter, the director of Standing Trees, a regional nonprofit working with the opponents of the project.

In the early 20th century, Lake Tarleton was home to a luxury resort, now long gone. Since then, people who valued the lake for its beauty and environment defeated repeated efforts to develop its shores. In 2000, nonprofits and private citizens raised about $450,000 and federal entities contributed another $6 million to protect a 5,300-acre property around the lake in perpetuity. Some who donated to the cause are now members of the Lake Tarleton Coalition.

“What we don’t understand is (that) this was put aside 22 years ago and saved,” Peter Faletra said.

The Forest Service analyzed the impact on views from public land and roads, and strategically placed the heaviest logging in areas that will not destroy the vistas. But opponents to the project are just as concerned about what it will look like within the forest.

“If you’re walking through a logged area, you just don’t want to be there,” Faletra said. They argued that it would be a decade or more until anyone would want to hike through the logged areas, and that the 100-foot buffer is not enough to protect the beauty of the trail that rambles around much of the lake’s perimeter.

Brown emphasized that while the trail may be popular, it is not in the agency’s official register of trails. But she added that the 100-foot buffer also will help protect the trail, and that the logging will not necessarily begin just where the buffer ends. The project leaves a 500-foot buffer around the Appalachian Trail, which also cuts across the area.

Conflicting views on environmental effects

While the Faletras said that they understand the goal of promoting a sustainable timber industry, they disagree that logging a forest benefits the environment.

“It’s a farming system. It uses the forest as a farm,” Peter Faletra said. For example, he argued that the Forest Service wants to remove beech because of its low timber value.

“Historically (when) humans try to manage natural ecosystems, they usually do a pretty abysmal job because ecosystems are so entangled with so many variables that it’s really hard to predict what the unintended consequences are,” he said.

The Faletras said they worry that erosion from logging, herbicide use and heavy equipment driving through the forest threaten the health of the lake. The lake stands out in the state for its cleanliness and the absence, so far, of invasive aquatic species.

The area where some of the heaviest logging will take place is riddled with streams, they said. The streams feed an approximately ¾-mile fen, a rare peat-forming wetland that requires thousands of years to form. The streams feed into Eastman Brook, which in turn flows into Lake Tarleton.

The Forest Service seeks to minimize the impact, in part by limiting logging to winter when the ground is frozen. But the agency also sees active intervention, including logging, as beneficial.

For example, the Forest Service outlined ecological reasons to remove beech trees.

“Beech is very prevalent and is a strong competitor because it is very tolerant of shade and often captures the entire understory of the forest in many locations,” Forest Service officials explained. “Once the understory is captured by beech, it dominates then overtakes the upper levels of the forest canopy.” While the Forest Service encourages beech in the White Mountain National Forest, it removes it in some strategic areas to encourage a “better mix of tree species.” The Forest Service plans to increase habitat for aspen, birch, spruce and fir trees, and maintain the amount of hemlock in the forest.

The Forest Service also argues that clearcuts “would produce the greatest amount of early successional habitat.”

Wildlife use different kinds of habitat during different stages of life, officials explained, for example, blackberries, raspberries and wild grasses regenerate quickly after a clearcut, providing wildlife with food and cover unavailable in a more mature forest.

The debate over Lake Tarleton is one instance in a larger effort to limit logging on public lands. Standing Trees is one of 70 groups, including prominent environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity, that have called on the Biden administration to protect old forests, let forests age and limit logging on public land in their Climate Forests campaign. They point to recent scientific developments that show that forests store massive amounts of carbon and continue to absorb carbon as they age. They also reference scientific evidence that older forests, diverse in both age and species, are more resilient to disease and invasive insects.

However, some ecologists argue that proactive management, which often includes logging, is a necessary part of managing a forest to be healthy and a productive carbon sink.

On Earth Day last week, President Joe Biden issued an executive order that aims to protect old-growth and mature forests, and boost reforestation. The order did not ban logging.

Looking ahead

The Lake Tarleton Coalition has gathered over 1,300 signatures on a petition “to save Lake Tarleton.”

“This is a perpetual thing,” Elaine Faletra said. If it’s not protected, “the next bunch of people are going to be arguing this again and again and again. It’s perpetual. Logging is like a farm,” she said.

The coalition’s goal is to formally reclassify the property as a “scenic area,” a designation for areas of outstanding or unique beauty that require special management to maintain them in an “undisturbed condition.” There are nine scenic areas in the White Mountain National Forest, none of them on the west side of the state.

The Forest Service will gather comments until May 11. Then it will analyze the comments and consider whether or not to revise its plans.

The White Mountain National Forest’s leadership could decide not to proceed with the project at any time, as critics emphasized. If it proceeds, layers of internal review, and opportunities to object, remain.

“It’s hard to say what would happen,” Brown said.

More information on the Forest Service’s plans, as well as information on how to comment, you can visit: https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=56394.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.




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