HOT SPRINGS - Wind energy and wilderness areas on the George Washington National Forest were the main topics of conversation at a public meeting on the proposed plan revision for the forest last Wednesday at Valley Elementary School.
During question-and-answer and breakout sessions, citizens asked U.S. Forest Service staff to remove any proposed areas for wind energy development from the plan. Currently, the draft would allow applications for wind projects to be submitted on about one-half of the forest.
In Bath County, areas identified as suitable for wind development include Allegheny Mountain, Little Mountain, Walker Mountain and part of Back Creek Mountain. Bath officials have gone on record as opposing wind development on national forest land in the county.
Ken Landgraf, chief forest planner and acting forest supervisor, said, "We received a very good letter from the county" about wind development.
He said due to potential impact on bats and birds as well as visual concerns, the forest service considered recommending prohibiting wind development throughout the forest. "We looked at the fact there is a national initiative to develop wind energy and wondered if it would be fair to say no on the whole forest," Landgraf said.
Any proposal submitted for wind development would be subject to "rigorous" environmental analysis, Landgraf said. There would be several obstacles, includ- ing endangered bats and other species, he noted.
Bath supervisor Jon Trees said he spoke on behalf of the board and, he believed, the majority of county citizens. "I am adamantly opposed to wind turbines in Bath County," he said. "We have invested a lot of time and energy in creating a tourism plan. Tourism is the main industry we have to offer in Bath County. When people come to Bath, Highland and Alleghany, they expect to see what they see now. Wind turbines do not belong in Bath County."
All those who spoke last Wednesday were opposed to wind energy development on national forest land. That was not the case, however, with wilderness areas. Most of those who addressed that topic wanted to see more wilderness areas available on the forest.
Wilderness areas are left unmanaged so natural processes can take place. No motorized vehicles are allowed in these areas, which concerns county officials in case of fire or other types of emergencies.
Specific recommendations for more wilderness were on the Shenandoah Mountain and Laurel Fork areas of the forest. Shenandoah Mountain was mentioned because it is the largest roadless area in the Central Appalachians.
Other concerns included road closings. The USFS has proposed closing about 160 miles of roads. If more roads were closed, older people or those with disabilities would have difficulty accessing more areas than they do now, one person said.
Logging was another topic. Discussion included how logging operations were conducted and the need for more timber operations, both for wildlife habitat and the livelihood of local loggers. One suggestion was for more clearcutting in order to create more deer habitat.
Landgraf said one of the main purposes of timber sales was to increase habitat. "The purpose of sales is not only to produce logs, but to produce habitat," he said.
Other issues brought to the attention of forest service representatives were watershed protection and the general health of the forest.
During his presentation to the group of about 40 in attendance, Landgraf said the comment period on the plan revision ends Sept. 1. Once all comments are received, he said forest service personnel will meet and decide if any changes to the draft plan are needed. The plan is expected to be finalized Jan. 12, Landgraf said.
Landgraf explained how the plan addressed some of the significant issues that have been identified. Many areas, he said, receive their water supplies from the forest. Riparian areas along streams have been extended and widened in order to make sure water quality problems are minimized, he said.
Watersheds with sensitive or endangered species as well as those with pollution problems downstream from the forest have been identified, according to Landgraf. "We have identified 19 ecological systems and have established goals for each system," he said.
Currently, Landgraf said, about 2,400 acres of timber can harvested per year on the GWNF. Under the draft plan, that would change to between 1,800 and 3,000. Actual timber harvests over the last five years have average 800 acres per year, he said.
Prescribed burning would increase under the draft plan. Landgraf said the current plan calls for 3,000 acres per year of burns while the draft plan would allow between 12,000 and 20,000 acres per year to be subject to prescribed burns.
Patrick Sheridan, district ranger for the Warm Springs and James River ranger districts, explained the need for prescribed burns. "Prescribed burns are mainly for reforestation. They are an important component in getting the right species back in the forest and the structure of those species," he said.
Landgraf said "resilient systems" is another area discussed in the draft plan revision. "With climate change and increasing levels development near the forest, in order to withstand these we need to make the forest as resilient as possible," he said.
He said the USFS expects more climate extremes and some culverts along streams will need to be changed in order to allow a larger volume of water to move as well as for fish to move more easily. He also said controlling non-native invasive plants is a priority.
More remote setting along the forest, namely wilderness areas is also addressed in the draft plan. Landgraf said about 370,000 acres have been identified as potential wilderness areas with about 20,000 additional acres of wilderness to be designated. "These areas have limited roads and provide remote settings. We are only able to identify potential wilderness areas. Only Congress can designate wilderness," he said.
Trails, Landgraf said, would be maintained at the current level of maintenance funding under sustainable access concerns. The number of miles of trail on the forest could increase if these could be moved to more suitable locations, he added.
"Volunteer agreements can result in improved access with no net increase in the cost of maintenance," Landgraf said. "If people can work with us and find better locations, maybe we can increase the amount of trails."
Landgraf said the forest service would probably close a number of roads, mainly those not open to the public or those that are lightly used. "We are trying to focus our management and maintenance on those roads actively used," he said.
Before the comment period ends Sept. 1, Landgraf said, comments may be submitted in writing or electronically. He said all comments received at five public meetings held on the draft plan revision would be considered. The meeting last Wednesday was the last public meeting scheduled.
To view the entire draft plan revision or to read the summary or frequently asked questions, visit www.fs.fed.us/r8/gwj.