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Southside Project lawsuit to be dismissed after Forest Service drops logging project

Photo for Southside Litigation shared by Southern Environmental Law Center
Will Harlan, Center for Biological Diversity
Photo for Southside Litigation shared by Southern Environmental Law Center

A logging project in Macon and Jackson Counties has been dropped after conservation groups filed a lawsuit earlier this year.

The Southside Project, which sits near Cashiers, has been a point of discussion since at least 2015. The final decision on the project was released in 2019 and the logging rights for part of the property were sold in 2022.

“We were asking the Forest Service to avoid logging in this area because we were aware of some of the exceptional ecological values in the area and we thought it did not need to be logged. But despite the presence of those values at that time, it was not in a Special Interest area,” Patrick Hunter, managing attorney of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Asheville office, said.

The project would remove 15-acres of white pine to encourage oak and history regeneration, according to the Forest Service. The project would have also included building a temporary road through the forest and a prescribed burn.

However, the area’s designation changed in 2023 when it became a Special Interest Area in the new Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan. The Forest Service released the long-awaited NPFP plan for the more than one million acres of forest in Western North Carolina in early 2023 after more than a decade of debate. Members of the conservation coalition have filed federal lawsuits relating to the plan.

The change in designation is what prompted the SELC to file its lawsuit in January 2024 to stop part of the logging project. The suit was brought by MountainTrue along with a coalition of conservation groups Sierra Club, the Chattooga Conservancy, The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife filed a lawsuit to stop the logging of one stand of trees (Stand 41-53) in the project area.

The Southside Project area includes at least two stands of old-growth, with trees near or over 200 years in age, according to the Chattooga Conservancy, but these stands were never part of the logging plan or the lawsuit.

“This wild and beautiful forest was saved because people spoke up to defend it,” Will Harlan, Southeast director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release.

The Southern Environmental Law Center(SELC) announced that the Forest Service offered to abandon its logging proposal in the area if the coalition of conservation groups dismissed the lawsuit. SELC confirmed that the lawsuit was dismissed Friday afternoon.

Nantahala District Ranger Troy Waskey confirmed the move in a June 21 letter stating that he would not implement the project and that this update would not change the overall environmental impact of the project.

Nantahala District Ranger Troy Waskey's letter highlighted the areas of the project that will not move forward.
Courtesy of Nantahala Ranger District, U.S. Forest Service
Nantahala District Ranger Troy Waskey's letter highlighted the areas of the project that will not move forward.

Other parts of the project’s logging plans will still move forward but those areas aren’t designated as Special Interest Areas, Hunter explained.

Forest Service Public Affairs Specialist Jenifer Bunty told BPR in February that she could not comment on the Southside Project since it was part of ongoing litigation but shared additional information about the project.

The document explained that the project land and area nearby has been designated as a Special Interest Area due to its high ecological diversity but said that the area slated for logging would improve forest health. The decision to move forward with logging was made in 2019 before the area was designated as Special Interest.

“The portion of the Special Interest Area dominated by white pine is not as healthy or ecologically diverse. Rather than exclude this portion from the Special Interest Area, our specialists recognized that some work on these 15 acres could improve the area’s resiliency and forest health overall,” the document that Bunty shared via email in February said.

Hunter said that the focus on white pine was not identified in the Forest Service plan.

“The project decision was not limited to white pine and if that was the Forest Service's intention all along that's what this should have done originally, but they didn't do that,” said Hunter. “So that's part of the reason we went to court.”

Nicole Hayler, director of the Chattooga Conservancy, applauded the Forest Service for the move but said that she is still concerned about the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan.

“Regretfully, it took filing a lawsuit and six months of negotiations to prompt the recalcitrant Forest Service to abide by federal law, to save one unique stand of our national forest,” Hayler said in a press release. “The rest of the damaging Southside project still is on the chopping block, while the new Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan is on deck with its mandates for escalating logging in sensitive areas — fueling more controversy and conflict that further undermines public trust in Forest Service managers.”

In March 2024, a federal lawsuit was filed by The Southern Environmental Law Center for the Chattooga Conservancy, MountainTrue and Debbie Kruzen’s Forest Advocates group that alleges timber targets in the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan violate federal laws and climate goals, Smoky Mountain News reported.

That lawsuit has continued to move through the federal court system. SELC explained that the Forest Service moved to dismiss three of the four claims identified in the lawsuit. Then in May, SELC filed an amended complaint. The Forest Service moved again to dismiss on June 7. The SELC filed a formal opposition last week on June 21.

The SELC explained that the Forest Service has the option of filing a reply brief today. They hadn’t filed as of Friday at noon.

The court has not yet said if there will be a hearing about the lawsuit or if it will issue a ruling without a hearing.

Additionally, the SELC also filed an April lawsuit alleging that the Forest Plan violates the Endangered Species Act and increases logging targets to potentially harm the northern long-eared bat, Indiana bat, Virginia big-eared bat, and gray bat.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.