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Residents Fight Mark Twain National Forest Restoration Plan


There's a feud along the border of Missouri and Arkansas in the Mark Twain National Forest. It's over a large and dense area in Butler Hollow. The U.S. Forest Service has a plan to use fire, herbicides and chainsaws to thin the woods. But residents are fighting this plan, as Jacqueline Froelich of member station KUAF reports.

JACQUELINE FROELICH, BYLINE: A chorus of tree frogs, called spring peepers, sings to Jo Nell Corn. She walks through the Mark Twain Forest and reflects on five generations of her family who thrived on the cold springs, rushing creeks and steep oak forests of Butler Hollow.

JO NELL CORN: To see all the natural beauty, and I guess unfortunately we took it all for granted because we just thought it would always be here, especially with it being a national forest.

FROELICH: She's standing in Chute Ridge, a scrub landscape in the Hollow covered in ghostly dead oaks - recently thinned and burned by the Forest Service. She's not happy.

CORN: We look at it as devastation. We look at it as destruction. To us that's not a turn or a picture of management.

FROELICH: Jo Nell Corn wants the forest left alone, and so do dozens of angry families who swarmed a recent USDA Forest Service meeting. A dozen rangers guide them to colorful posters that illustrate plans to restore most of the land in Butler Hollow. Eighty-eight-year-old Wayne Walden is upset as he holds up a faded photograph of his homestead.

WAYNE WALDEN: Mother Nature does a wonderful job in Butler Hollow - all of my life.

FROELICH: Centuries ago, this land was covered with ancient white oaks and limestone glades - groomed by a perennial wildfire. Settlers, though, set about hacking the forest to use the wood for railroad ties and barrels. After the Forest Service took possession decades later, logging and fire suppression created dense thickets of red oaks. Now aromatic cedars are moving in, which the Forest Service considers invasive. So District Ranger Joe Koloski says it's time Butler Hollow returns to its roots.

JOE KOLOSKI: Picture a setting where tree density is relatively low; there are a lot of gaps in the canopy that allow a lot of sunlight to hit the ground, and in the understory, very rich in grasses, forbs, flowers.

FROELICH: Plans call for a third of the 1.5 million acre Mark Twain National Forest to be restored. Opponents say it's just an excuse to log public lands. Timber sales on the Mark Twain last year brought nearly $4 million to the U.S. Treasury. But forest planner Rich Hall says that's not it.

RICH HALL: We are not in the business of making money. We're in the business of managing land. And we're managing it for ecosystem health and for society.

FROELICH: Hall welcomes the public debate about forest planning, he says, as long as it's based on science and not sentiment. One critic says restoring forests to the way they looked long ago should not be the mission of the U.S. Forest Service. Andy Stahl is executive director of the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. He says the government's growing penchant for historic landscaping must stop.

ANDY STAHL: Today's national forests have no more relationship to what this landscape looked like in 1500 than do the cornfields of Iowa.

FROELICH: The Forest Service says the restoration of the Mark Twain is not a done deal. Some plans may be scaled back. They'll make a draft decision in a few months. For NPR News, I'm Jacqueline Froelich in Fayetteville, Ark. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jacqueline Froelich is an investigative journalist and has been a news producer for KUAF National Public Radio since 1998. She covers politics, the environment, energy, business, education, history, race and culture. Her radio segments have been nationally syndicated. She is also a station-based national correspondent for NPR in Washington DC., and recipient of eight national and state broadcast awards.

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