A switch is coming to the Jefferson National Forest’s top leadership, a job complicated by conflict over plans to run a natural gas pipeline up and down mountainsides and under the Appalachian Trail.
Forest supervisor Joby Timm has been temporarily assigned to the U.S. Forest Service’s regional office in Atlanta, according to an agency spokeswoman.
Beth LeMaster, deputy forest supervisor in a Roanoke County office that serves as the combined headquarters for the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, will take over Timm’s responsibilities on an interim basis, spokeswoman Rebecca Robbins said.
Although officials say Timm is expected to return to the supervisor’s position, the transition comes at a challenging time for his office.
Last month, an appeals court scolded the Forest Service for not addressing environmental concerns when it allowed the Mountain Valley Pipeline to pass through public woodlands.
Forest service officials are now reconsidering a permit struck down by 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on July 27, which in turn led federal regulators to order a stop to pipeline construction.
Timm and his agency have also been accused in lawsuits of taking a heavy-handed approach with protesters who sat in trees and participated in other non-violent demonstrations.
And in May, the Forest Service issued a public apology after its law enforcement officers repeatedly drove all-terrain vehicles on the Appalachian Trial as they monitored the tree-sitters, damaging a scenic footpath that is closed to motorized traffic.
Robbins did not address a question about whether those incidents played a role in Timm’s transfer, saying in an email only that temporary assignments like the one he received are common.
“The Forest Service often rotates employees through acting assignments to fill key positions when retirements or vacancies occur,” she wrote.
Starting Monday, Timm will spend about 120 days as the acting director of lands, minerals and special uses in the Forest Service’s Southern regional office, filling in for another Atlanta official who is also on a temporary assignment.
In a written statement, Timm said he was “looking forward to this temporary assignment and I am happy to fill in where I am needed in the Agency.”
Although Forest Service officials declined to say whether recent events prompted the transfer, some pipeline opponents were quick to suggest they did.
“Timm’s reassignment was inevitable once the court declared the Forest Service process a ruse,” said Tammy Belinsky, a Floyd County lawyer who worked with the Sierra Club in a successful challenge of the agency’s approval for 3.5 miles of the buried pipeline to pass through the forest.
After first expressing “grave concerns” about Mountain Valley’s plans to control erosion during construction, the Forest Service later caved and accepted the company’s proposal, a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit found.
“American citizens understandably place their trust in the Forest Service to protect and preserve this country’s forests, and they deserve more than silent acquiescence to a pipeline company’s justification for upending large swaths of national forest lands,” the court’s opinion stated.
Since April, regulators have warned Mountain Valley that sediment-laden water flowed from more than a dozen work sites in violation of state rules.
Timm took over supervision of the Jefferson National Forest in May 2016, when plans for the pipeline were still taking shape.
“He has found himself in a very politicized environment, one that probably took him by surprise,” said Rupert Cutler, a Roanoke resident active in environmental causes. Cutler helped oversee the Forest Service from 1977 to 1980 as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s assistant secretary for natural resources and environment during the Carter Administration.
Cutler said he tended to agree with speculation by some that Forest Service staffers in Roanoke were forced by higher-ranking officials in Washington, D.C., to amend a forest management plan to accommodate the pipeline.
“Politicization of the United States Forest Service appears to be under way just as we’ve seen with the EPA and other federal agencies in the Trump Administration, and that is an unfortunate situation,” Cutler wrote in an email.
“It demoralizes the agency’s professional staff and leads to misuse and abuse of the Nation’s natural resources legacy for short-term private profit.”
Timm’s reassignment could be part of a career path charted by his superiors, Cutler wrote.
“Or, for all I know, he might have expressed his and his staff’s opposition to the pipeline and is being taken out of a ‘line’ supervisory position for his being so outspoken,” he added.
One thing is clear, Cutler said: Conservationists have had a hard time getting in touch with Timm in recent months, perhaps because he’s been called to pipeline-related meetings in Atlanta and Washington.
There’s been a lot to talk about, as tree-sitters and other demonstrators have clashed with Forest Service and Mountain Valley officials at several locations where the pipeline will cut through the forest in Giles County and Monroe County, West Virginia.
A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Roanoke accused Forest Service officials of denying food and water to a pipeline opponent who spent 57 days on a platform suspended from a pole that blocked a construction access road. Another legal action claimed that closing a Forest Service road leading to the area violated the First Amendment rights of protesters.
Both lawsuits were dismissed as moot, with no rulings on their merits, after the protesters left their aerial blockades.
Although the pipeline’s route through the national forest represents only about 1 percent of its total 303-mile length from northern West Virginia to Pittsylvania County, it continues to affect the entire project.
Not knowing how long the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management might take to reconsider their permits, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Aug. 3 ordered a stop to all construction.
One week later, FERC approved a stabilization plan that Mountain Valley said was needed to prevent any risks to the environment or public safety that might be posed by an immediate construction freeze .
Part of the plan involves installing lengths of pipe that have already been laid down along trenches dug for them.
Attorneys for the Sierra Club and other conservation groups have objected, saying the stabilization plan would actually allow full-blown construction on 33 miles of the pipeline’s route.
On Tuesday, the organizations asked the 4th Circuit Court and the District of Columbia U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to issue injunctions to prevent such work, which they said “would make a mockery” of federal regulations and the 4th Circuit’s earlier ruling.
A Mountain Valley spokeswoman said the stabilization is needed while the company works with federal agencies in hopes of resuming construction.
“It is unfortunate that some special interest groups would rather litigate than support reasonable measures designed for environmental protection and safety,” Natalie Cox wrote in an email.