Do The Right Thing: Get It In Writing

 By: Eric Eckl
In March, the federal district court in Statesboro, Georgia handed down a ruling that sent ripples through the forestry community. The court found that a timber company had built a road through a wetland in violation of federal clean water laws. The consequences for the company were severe, the court ordered the company to pay $78,000.00 in penalties and to restore the site and mitigate for the damage.

In June, another land owner put themselves at risk, building a bridge over a stretch of the Canoochee River frequented by anglers and paddlers without formal permits from the US Army Corps of Engineers.

What do these two incidents have in common? In each case, instead of formally
applying for permits, the companies in question neglected to secure permits from the U.S. Army of Corps of Engineers before they started work. Instead, they took a chance that their project wouldn't require one.

Under the federal clean water laws, forestry is held to a different standard than preparing the land for development. That's the "silvicultural exemption." In other words, so long as you are growing trees and harvesting trees you have a relatively free hand on your land. But if you want to develop or sell timberland for development and wetlands are involved, the exemption goes away.

Understandably, many of us dread the paperwork and delay associated with getting that written authorization. But when you are preparing to do work, other than harvesting or managing your timber, in wetlands or along the banks of some body of water, it's the right - and smart - thing to do. After all, the law holds you, the landowner, accountable to getting it right, not the consultants and construction firms that advise you.

Cutting corners on your permits exposes you to legal action from the government - and anybody else who could be impacted by your project. The lawsuit that led to the $78,000 penalty was set in motion by a neighbor, angry about flooding on their land. The environmental group that brought the suit on this individual's behalf did not receive any portion of the settlement.

The March case will affect all of us in the forestry community. This ruling comes on the heels of another incident in which the US Army Corps of Engineers was sued in 2007 for failing to require appropriate permits in the logging of a cypress swamp that would have converted the swamp to open water ready for development. In the wake of these rulings, Army Corps of Engineers re-opened discussions with the Georgia Forestry Commission about wetland permits and the two agencies will more consistently hold the forestry community to the letter of the law.

So the next time you're walking your land and arrive at a stream or wetland, pause to listen to the birds in the trees. Imagine the ducks, deer, bass, turkeys, sunfish, crawfish, and other animals that depend on that spot to reproduce and thrive for future generations. Think about the terrible floods that swept through Georgia not too long ago and imagine the role your land plays in preventing those problems for your neighbors downstream.

Before you disturb this area, go get your permit. If a consultant whispers in your ear that you don't need one, go get your permit. If a neighbor brags about building without a permit, go get your permit.

And then when an angry neighbor, environmentalist, estranged relative, or anybody else knocks on your door with a bone to pick, tell them to take it up with the government. Yes, it's a little bit of red tape. But it's a whole lot of peace of mind.
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