Advocates object to White Mountain National Forest plan to manage land near Gorham



Published: 06-15-2023 4:00 PM

Environmental advocates are pushing back on a plan from officials with the White Mountain National Forest to redevelop an area of land near Gorham, which could include cutting down trees and constructing new roads and trails.

The federal forest agency’s proposal is focused on the Peabody West Habitat Management Unit, about 15,500 acres between Gorham and Randolph. The Forest Service says the project is meant to provide high-quality timber products, improve accessibility for people spending time outdoors, and encourage a more diverse wildlife habitat by removing trees to make room for younger ones.

The plan includes various proposals for cutting down trees across 2,220 acres of land. The Forest Service is also planning to reconstruct or build about 13 miles of road in the area, build 4 miles of mountain bike trails, designate 300 acres as a backcountry ski zone and develop up to 15% of that as skiing terrain, and improve a short trail to a swimming site.

But a recent objection, filed by the Vermont Law and Graduate School’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic on behalf of the advocacy organization Standing Trees, says the Forest Service hasn’t fully considered the environmental impacts of logging — including its potential to threaten climate resilience and wildlife habitat.

The objection contends that the project has sidestepped federal requirements and failed to demonstrate compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, National Forest Management Act, and other laws. It also says the project violates an executive order from the Biden administration meant to restore and conserve forests.

“White Mountain National Forest is really a bulwark,” said Standing Trees Executive Director Zack Porter. “It’s an insurance policy against this changing climate and extinction crisis. And we have a choice to make about how we want to leverage this landscape going forward.”

Burning fossil fuels has been the primary driver of the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that’s causing climate change, according to NASA. But clearing land also contributes. Forests store carbon in their soils, trees and plants, helping keep it out of the atmosphere, where it would contribute to climate change.

The Forest Service says harvesting wood can play a role in reducing carbon emissions, as young trees re-start the process of storing carbon and wood products are used in place of more fossil fuel intensive products like steel.

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Porter said he’s also concerned about the project’s impact on the Northern Long-eared Bat, an endangered species. The National Forest has said the project may affect the bats, but will not disturb hibernation or remove trees that mother bats are roosting in.

Standing Trees is asking the National Forest to do a more in-depth report on how the project would affect the environment, an “Environmental Impact Statement,” which the agency is required to complete when a project will have “significant impact” on the environment.

“What the Forest Service has done instead is to do a short summary of some of the impacts of the project and has undertaken an assessment of only a couple issues in depth,” said Christophe Courchesne, a Senior Attorney with the Environmental Advocacy Clinic. “This is a very cursory review that the Forest Service has done here in their environmental assessment.”

Standing Trees is also asking the Forest Service to do an additional review of the project’s impacts on endangered, threatened and sensitive species, and revise the project accordingly.

The Forest Service’s environmental assessment of the project says the agency has found it will have “no significant impact” on the environment. White Mountain National Forest officials did not respond to NHPR’s request for comment.

Officials have 90 days to respond to the objection from Standing Trees.