Fate of Warbler Divides Georgia Conservationists Advocates for the golden-winged warbler say the endangered bird needs more clearings in the woods. But as Susannah Capelouto of Georgia Public Radio points out, other conservationists say such logging amounts to "clear-cutting for critters."
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Fate of Warbler Divides Georgia Conservationists

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Fate of Warbler Divides Georgia Conservationists

Fate of Warbler Divides Georgia Conservationists

Fate of Warbler Divides Georgia Conservationists

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Advocates for the golden-winged warbler say the endangered bird needs more clearings in the woods. But as Susannah Capelouto of Georgia Public Radio points out, other conservationists say such logging amounts to "clear-cutting for critters."

JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

And now an unusual story about the environment that pits bird lovers against tree huggers.

A small bird that likes to nest in the Appalachian Mountain range is the reason the Forest Service plans to cut hundreds of acres of trees there. That worries some environmentalists who say they don't want the bird to become an excuse for logging. From Georgia Public Broadcasting, Susannah Capelouto reports.

SUSANNAH CAPELOUTO: The golden-winged warbler fits in the palm of a hand. Its plumage is gray with spectacular golden wings and a golden head. Nathan Klaus, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, has studied the bird extensively.

Mr. NATHAN KLAUS (Georgia Department of Natural Resources): It's a habitat specialist. It has very picky requirements for where it's going to be found. It needs brushy habitat where it's going to forage, and it needs grassy habitat where it puts its nest on the ground. And so where you have those two elements come together, you've got happy golden-winged warblers.

CAPELOUTO: Though warblers only hang out in places above 3,000 feet. The numbers have be declining all along the Appalachian Mountain Range, but they are not listed as endangered. Yet in Georgia, there are only six breeding pairs left. That's because much of their habitat is owned by the U.S. Forest Service, and it has stopped logging in high elevations and suppresses fires. That has allowed the forest to grow thick. Now the Forest Service has a plan to bring back the warblers. Klaus helped develop it.

Mr. KLAUS: We're cutting trees heaviest on the ridge tops, and then it's going to taper off as it gets down off to the sides of the hill. And what that - and so the top of the ridge is going to be fairly open, but not wide open. There's still going to be scattered trees. And what we're trying to mimic is the result of a big fire.

CAPELOUTO: The Chattahoochee National Forest in north Georgia is lush and thick with cherry oak, hemlock, white pine maple and poplar trees. There's mountain laurel, rhododendron, and a dizzying array of wildflowers, herbs and ferns. Wayne Jenkins loves this forest. He's head of Georgia Forestwatch, a group that has challenged the forest service several times in court and won. He shows off a plot of land that the forest service has been burning for 20 years to attract song birds.

Mr. WAYNE JENKINS (Georgia Forestwatch): Yeah, I wanted to get in here far enough where you actually could see - get an idea of the size of it. We're kind of in the middle. It's about 31 acres, but there are other patches I think that amount to about 170 acres in the area that they want to manage the same way.

CAPELOUTO: He points to a blackened tree stump that pokes out from a sea of sassafras.

Mr. JENKINS: You see how different that is? I mean look.

CAPELOUTO: In the distance, a mountain sports a colorful fall canopy signaling a healthy mix of trees. Jenkins says sacrificing trees to possibly save a bird that is not endangered can be risky for the Forest Service.

Mr. JENKINS: And you know it's one thing for the agency to just harvest timber for the sake of harvesting timber for the use of people. It's another thing to make this leap to managing for wildlife. That's much more complicated, and it's why we think it's experimental.

Mr. CHRIS LIGGETT (U.S. Forest Service): Well, I understand their concerns.

CAPELOUTO: Chris Liggett is the director of planning for the southern region of the U.S. Forest Service. He admits that in the past the Forest Service may have cut more trees than necessary, but he says in the new 10-year forest plan, logging is only a tool.

Mr. LIGGETT: What we say here is we're interested in providing a supply of wood products as an outcome of achieving non-timber objectives. So the primary objectives that the Chattahoochee-Oconee is trying to do is just forest health and wildlife habitat management.

But as they do that, we will produce timber product.

CAPELOUTO: Georgia Forest Watch says it is not opposed to species management but it says the forest plan is short on specifics. Wildlife biologist Nathan Klaus says he keeps talking with everyone involved because he says he does not want any court battles to hold up the golden winged warbler project.

Mr. KLAUS: Really, just like anybody else, wildlife biologists, the hardest part is working with people. Only in my situation, if I fail it doesn't - it's not that I don't get the big sale; it might be that I lose a species.

CAPELOUTO: According the Forest Service, the timber sales and felling would start next year. Meanwhile the golden winged warbler is a candidate for Georgia's endangered species list.

For NPR News I'm Susannah Capelouto in Atlanta.

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