Is the glass half full, or is it half empty? That is the classic question people ask to decide if someone is an optimist or a pessimist. When considering the mission of the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society regarding healthy forests, abundant wildlife and our sporting traditions, what are you . . . an optimist or pessimist?
The pessimist could argue that we have plenty to worry about. Today, there are grouse hunters in Tennessee who know when they have moved off the Cherokee National Forest and onto private property, not by crossing a fence or spotting a posted sign, but by taking note of how much better the land is managed on privately held woodlands. Too many of our nation’s federal forests are being neglected, are getting older and gradually being overtaken by climax species that crowd out, or shade out, the pioneer species preferred by ruffed grouse, American woodcock and other wildlife. The devastating wildfires and tragic loss of life in the Southeast last November is the direct result of neglect and mismanagement of forests and woodlands – an area of the country that formerly supported abundant ruffed grouse and woodcock populations and provided many days of hunting enjoyment for local hunters and those who traveled to the Southern Appalachians specifically to hunt ruffed grouse and woodcock.
It took decades of inaction by the United States Forest Service to place ruffed grouse, American woodcock and other wildlife of young forests in their current precarious positions on many of our national forests. RGS will closely monitor on-the-ground actions and regularly interact with the Forest Service at local and national levels to ensure that the conservation imperatives outlined in our legal challenge are consistently and effectively addressed by the Agency.
Each national forest operates under a forest plan that is developed with substantial public involvement. These forest plans are, in essence, contracts with the public. Unfortunately, over the past several decades, individual national forests throughout the Eastern United States have met, on average, only 24 percent of forest plan minimum acreage goals for these important young forest habitats. Not surprisingly, wildlife dependent upon young forest habitats are experiencing substantial population declines on many of our national forests. Clearly, the Forest Service has broken its contract with the public.
The optimist’s view would include words like “opportunity” and “potential”. Check out the videos of the 2016 Grouse Camp Tour on www.grousecamp.org to see first-hand some of the optimism we found. Last year’s Grouse Camp Tour celebrated habitat, membership and the grouse and woodcock hunting experience by making stops throughout the Southern Appalachian Region that spans across several states. We saw and heard the absolute determination that so many of our members have in restoring healthy forest habitat and returning grouse and woodcock populations to historical levels. That determination is founded on an optimism that recognizes the potential for those forests to provide recreational enjoyment for far more citizens than is the case today. We cannot and will not allow the Forest Service continue their failure to provide the young forest habitats required by the ruffed grouse, American woodcock, golden-winged warbler and other game and nongame wildlife on national forests throughout the Eastern United States.
The Forest Service and RGS met in November 2015 to find a path forward to resolve the issue raised in the Petition for Rulemaking and to secure the future for wildlife of young forests on our national forests. To its credit, the Forest Service acknowledged that the picture painted by the data provided by RGS is indeed accurate. On our part, RGS recognized that the Forest Service faces multiple challenges that affect what the Agency can and can’t accomplish on a daily basis. However, RGS reiterated that despite these challenges, the Forest Service has the personnel and financial resources to pay far more attention to the habitat needs of young forest wildlife species.
The Forest Service and RGS met again in March 2016 at the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference to discuss steps that the Agency had taken to address the compelling need for additional emphasis on the conservation of wildlife of young forests since our Petition was filed. The Forest Service identified several recently proposed habitat management projects on national forests in the Eastern United States that, if fully implemented, will help move the ball forward. In addition, the Forest Service set aside a big chunk of time during its regularly scheduled meeting at the Conference with wildlife conservation organizations from across the nation to specifically address the status and trends of wildlife of young forests. If was gratifying to note that these organizations were unanimous in their support for additional attention to the needs of these critters.
We will again meet with the Forest Service this spring in Washington, DC. RGS has been patient and appreciative of what appear to be sincere efforts on the part of the Forest Service to substantively address the compelling needs of wildlife of young forests – after all, the Agency is a bit like a super tanker – it can’t be turned on a dime. However, this patience is limited, and we will need to see consistent progress in turning the ship around.
One measure of progress will be the goal for young forest habitats set by the Nantahala/Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina when it completes its ongoing forest plan revision. The public, including many RGS members, spoke loud and clear at the numerous public forums sponsored to identify issues of concern. A primary issue, if not THE primary issue raised by the public, was the need to dramatically increase sustainable timber harvests to dramatically increase the availability of these habitats on the Forest. RGS hopes that the Nantahala/Pisgah is indeed listening to the public and will act accordingly.
At the end of the day, RGS is optimistic and sincerely desires to work collaboratively with the Forest Service – and we sense that this desire is mutual. However, should the need arise, RGS will take whatever steps necessary to compel the Agency to meet its legal and principled obligations.
For more information about how RGS and AWS preserve sporting traditions by creating healthy forests, go to www.ruffedgrousesociety.org.