The Ocoee Whitewater Center in Cherokee National Forest. (Photo: Bob Butters)

The Southern Environmental Law Center has voluntarily dismissed a lawsuit previously filed in federal court.

The suit alleged that the United States Forest Service has illegally endangered the soil, forests and waters of the Cherokee National Forest and hidden those risks from the public.

It was filed on behalf of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, with Knoxville attorney Shelby Ward, on behalf of Heartwood and Tennessee Heartwood.

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The suit focused on the so-called Dinkey Project, a timber sale slated for an area along Tumbling Creek with steep slopes and fragile soils that made it a poor choice for commercial operations.

For years, concerned citizens had flagged this sale as problematic. In response to the lawsuit, the Forest Service canceled the sale.

“We take the Forest Service’s decision to withdraw the timber sale near Tumbling Creek as an important first step in rebuilding the trust that has been eroded between local citizens and the Forest Service,” said Sam Evans, Leader of SELC’s National Forest and Parks Program. “Our decision to dismiss the lawsuit is intended in the same spirit.”

The health of Tumbling Creek was a major factor in the lawsuit. A cold-water trout stream running through the mountains of southeast Tennessee, it feeds into the Ocoee River and is popular with local families for fishing, wading, and picnicking.

Conservation groups were worried that heavy commercial logging along the creek would lead to erosion, harming fish and other wildlife.

“We were concerned that the timber sale near Tumbling Creek would cause massive soil loss that would prevent trees from growing on steep slopes, as was the case with other recent logging projects, one of which was only a dozen miles west of this area,” said Axel Ringe, Conservation Chair for the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, referring to a recent timber sale known as the “Hogback” project.

In 2015, monitoring of the Hogback sale revealed severe violations of the Forest Service’s requirement to protect soils, but this information was not acknowledged in the development of the Tumbling Creek project.

“There was no indication that the Forest Service learned anything from Hogback, and the Tumbling Creek project was even risker, with more ground disturbances, larger harvests and steeper slopes, all concentrated on the banks of Tumbling Creek,” said Ringe. “This is one of the healthiest watersheds and streams in the area. We couldn’t allow another disastrous timber sale to happen here.”

For nearly four years, conservation groups tried to dissuade the Forest Service from taking unnecessary risks on publicly-owned lands, with pictures, examples and monitoring data to show what could go wrong. The Forest Service did not respond to those concerns, and so in July 2017 these groups filed a formal administrative objection. That objection was dismissed without review. Local citizens felt they had no choice but to file suit.

“It’s extremely unfortunate that the Cherokee National Forest refused to take public comments seriously until a lawsuit was filed,” said Davis Mounger, co-founder of Tennessee Heartwood. “Cancelling the project is not exactly what we asked for, but it is a welcome development. It shows that the Forest Service is finally listening.”

“The Tumbling Creek project in the Cherokee National Forest is a good reminder of the importance of listening to the public when making decisions about public lands,” said Shelby Ward, attorney for Heartwood and Tennessee Heartwood. “Currently at the federal level, there are several attempts to shortcut public participation in projects like this one. What should have happened here—transparency and accountability—should be a part of every Forest Service decision. That’s the only way to protect the land and the people who use and depend on it.”

View the filed notice of voluntary dismissal here. 

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