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Environmental activists protest lack of transparency from Wayne Forest officials

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Protesters interrupt state of the forest speech. Photo by Alejandro Figueroa.

Nearly two dozen environmental activists gathered at the Wayne National Forest headquarters Tuesday to protest the management’s “dismissive” attitude toward the public’s involvement in the process of rewriting a new forest management plan, which sets guidelines for how the forest is managed.

Environmental activists believe that the way in which the forest plan is being assessed does not actually take into account climate change trends such as the release of carbon when the forest permits use of mineral extraction or timber.

Members of the Athens County’s Future Action Network (ACFAN) assembled at Tuesday’s open house meeting where Wayne forest officials planned to invite the public to learn about last year’s forest management accomplishments and listen to a “state of the forest” presentation delivered by Forest Supervisor Carrie Gilbert.

However, before Gilbert’s presentation began, Roxanne Groff, a member of ACFAN, called for the public’s attention while she and other members waited in the headquarter’s main lobby to give a speech on the group’s disappointment with forest officials’ lack of transparency and their dismissiveness.

Activists also criticized the forests’ management on how planned fires are used to burn undergrowth, which they said is yet another instance of forest management “not listening” to the environmental community.

“Our working group submitted hundreds of pages and references to science based information to the forest plan revision team,” Groff said. “They’re not doing anything.”

Some activists rallying with Groff wore colorful headpieces, some resembling trees or mushrooms, and held signs that read “we want good science, not junk science” and “stop destroying our forest for money.”

While Groff decried the management’s lack of transparency, some members of the public walked out and left the building, which prompted forest officials to step in and stop the speech.

The protest lasted about 5 minutes, and Gilbert told Groff that it was not an appropriate time to protest. A security guard then asked the group to leave the building. On their way toward the exit, they sang a song called “Put your roots down,” by a choir named Thrive, to emphasize the way in which forest leaders are dismissing public interest, according to Groff.

Wayne is revising its forest plan, a process expected to take about three years. The plan’s revision process is completed in three phases as guided by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 2012 Planning Rule.

The revision is currently in phase one, which means the forest plan team is assessing current forest conditions and taking public input from groups of people referred to as working groups, according to Wayne National Forest Public Affairs Specialist Kelly Miller.

The U.S Forest Services management of the Wayne follows a directive given to the forest management by the U.S. Forest Service and Congress. Forest land is to be managed for multiple uses, including forest health, wildlife habitat, watershed health; and human uses such as recreation, timber and energy development to meet the needs of the population, Miller said.

“These political disagreements are an expression of those differences of opinion on what the philosophy should be,” Miller said. “But remember that on the Wayne National forest, we operate our mission as directed by Congress and as directed by our agency.”

Heather Cantino, also a member of ACFAN, said that their group, along with other community members, have objected to Wayne management decisions for decades, claiming that forest management refuses to address climate impacts by using “old” or “bad science” to write a new forest plan that ignores current climate changes.

“We are not offering just opinions or another ‘philosophy,’” Cantino said. “They refuse to consider science because their real goals are to sell our forests to the timber industry.”

Another point of contention is the way the forest service manages planned fires Groff said. Forest management prescribes “unnecessary fires” that release carbon emissions instead of holding them. The timber that they claim will regrow will be cut down for financial gain, according to Groff.

In response, Miller said that “disturbances,” including low intensity fires in the undergrowth of the forest, simply encourage the growth of oak seedlings which are being replaced by shade tolerant species such as maple trees.  

Glenn Matlack, a professor of plant biology at Ohio University who was not part of the protest but is a member working alongside the forest revision team, said that putting a forest management plan together means taking the viewpoint of different working groups and stakeholders and trying to reconcile them.

“It’s been difficult for the Wayne National Forest, and it’s been difficult for us,” Matlack said.  “Rewriting a forest management plan is not easy. On the other hand, I don’t think they’re intentionally trying to get rid of us.”

Despite differences in philosophy, forest officials maintain that they follow management approaches backed by experts who consider how different aspects of the forest could be affected. The public is always welcomed to be part of the input process, Miller said.

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