U.S. Forest Service seeks public opinion on South of Route 9 project

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MANCHESTER — In order to continue with the process of planning improvements to wildlife areas in southern Vermont and northwestern Massachusetts, the U.S. Forest Service is inviting the public to comment on its environmental assessment document for the South of Route 9 Integrated Resource Project.

The project that launched in 2012 is reaching final stages. After a series of public meetings during the outreach process that started in fall 2013, the Green Mountain National Forest is asking communities to provide anticipated environmental concerns about what could result from the project. Comments will be accepted until May 23 via physical mail, email, in person and fax.

Project land involves 62,000 acres with primary focus in Pownal, Readsboro, Stamford, Bennington, Woodford and Whitingham, but stretches into Clarksburg, Florida and North Adams, Mass. targeting 22,500 acres of National Forest land to be used for resource management activities, according to a release from the Forest Service.

The activities include reconstruction of wildlife, fish habitat, sustainable roads and trails, restoring soils and wetlands, expanding recreational opportunities and safeguarding heritage resources. The idea of timber harvest for wood products to support the local and regional economy, "enhance forest health and diversity, and create more diverse plant and wildlife habitat," are also being considered.

David Francomb, Manchester District ranger, said once comments are analyzed and there aren't issues to evaluate, then an pre-decisional objection process will ensue, but only for those who took part in the past reflections. Waiting until this step to provide opinions is not acceptable, according to Francomb.

"Those folks in those communities came out during that process," he said. "They would have an opportunity to provide comments. There are no public meetings during the comment period. They did those upfront."

The pre-decisional objection process, under 36 Code of Federal Regulations 218, reviewers can file an objection and seek administrative review before the project decision is made during a 45 day period. A final decision cannot be made until objections are resolved.

To clarify, an issue regards a point of disagreement, debate or dispute over a proposed action. In the Forest Service's April 20 Scoping Comments Content Analysis and Response to Comments document, comments were organized into unresolved, other and non-issue categories.

To name a few, existing 'other' issues involve a concern about the decline in timber quality, forest habitat diversity, endangering the northern long-eared bat from proposed management activities, adverse effects to sensitive wildlife, the impact on air quality from prescribed burning to manage oak habitat, and existing trails do not meet current public need.

Francomb mentioned another project that started in 2012 and had objections in which the resolutions were just released. However, he doesn't see any controversial issues in the South of Route 9 project that would delay the process.

"It can be tough, depends on how controversial some of the proposed work," he said. "It doesn't appear there are a lot of controversial aspects to this project. You have to be actively engaged in the process. It's important to get your comments in."

Organizations that have collaborated with the Forest Service on the project consist of Green Mountain Club, Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, Woodford Snobusters Club, Vermont All-Terrain Vehicle Sportsman Association, Bennington Trail Cruisers Club, Hoosac River Watershed Association, Trout Unlimited, Town officials from Bennington, Pownal, Readsboro, Stamford and Woodford, Bennington County Regional Planning Commission, community members, stakeholders, Vermont Department of Forest Parks and Recreation, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.

The environmental assessment and other project documents can be found at http://www.fs.fed.us/nepa/nepa_project_exp.php?project=43088. For more information about the project contact the U.S. Forest Service at (802) 767-4261, ext. 522, or email jstrand@fs.fed.us.

Comments can be mailed to the Green Mountain National Forest at 231 North Main St. Rutland, Vt., 05701, or faxed to (802) 767-4777 at JStrand South of Route 9 Project, or hand delivered to 2538 Depot St. Manchester Center, Vt., during regular business hours.

—Makayla-Courtney McGeeney can be reached at (802)-447-7567, ext. 118.


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