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Washington, DC September 19, 2016 – The U.S. Forest Service illegally tore up a section of the Trail of Tears Historic Trail but, despite apologizing to tribes who regard the land as sacred, has not held any officials to account, according to a complaint filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) calling for an investigation by the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the more than two years since dredging a series of 35 impoundment dykes and tank traps across the Trail of Tears, the Forest Service has yet to repair the damage or take any steps to prevent its recurrence.
The Trail of Tears was a series of forced relocations of Indian tribes from the Southeast U.S. following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, during which thousands died. The series of protected trails cover 2,200 miles stretching across nine states, from Georgia to Oklahoma.
In March 2014, Cherokee National Forest officials launched extensive erosion control work but did so –
- On lands the Forest Service did not then own. Instead the tract was subject to an option to buy under terms explicitly forbidding this type of work;
- Sending heavy equipment out without conducting the required historic or cultural resource reviews even though the sole purpose of the purchase was to add land to the publicly-owned historic trail system. It also illegally altered the course of a stream and was done in violation of federal law requiring environmental review for any such project; and
- Without reason, as the targeted erosion was not on the Trail of Tears, which is now honeycombed with three large tank traps and 32 water bars.
“This is one the most blatant official desecrations of a sacred site in modern American history,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that on September 6, 2016, Tennessee’s State Historical Commission cancelled its recognition of the reliability of the Cherokee National Forest’s cultural preservation program, thus requiring detailed state review of all future projects. “Jaw-dropping incompetence mixed with abject dereliction of duty coated in an impenetrable mantle of bureaucratic self-preservation spawned this debacle.”
Shortly after the illegal project, the responsible district ranger was promoted to a position in the forest supervisor’s office, placed in charge of “strategic planning” and retired the next year, according to an agency timeline. After the magnitude of the damage was recognized, the Forest Service did only an internal review but did not question anyone under oath or take any apparent disciplinary action.
It was not until many months after the damage was known that Regional Forester Tony Tooke issued an apology to the tribes this June which read, in part:
“The Forest Service’s actions damaged the Trail of Tears…historic trails that you have told us are sacred to your tribes. Many of you have told me about the great harm this has done to the tribes, emotionally and spiritually. On behalf of the U.S. Forest Service, I sincerely apologize to each and every member of your respective tribes and to each of you individually for this incident.”
In a complaint filed today with the Secretary of Agriculture and the USDA Office of Inspector General, PEER is requesting that investigators independent of the Forest Service conduct a thorough review, identify responsible parties and pursue appropriate corrective actions.
“This sorry episode shows a Forest Service leadership allergic to any notion of accountability,” added Ruch. “Beyond repairing the damage, the U.S. Forest Service should adopt management reforms which prevent – in an enforceable manner – this type of massive screw-up from ever taking place again.”