Sarah Francisco first came face to face with the aftermath of clear cutting when she was a kid at a summer camp in the George Washington National Forest. On a hike, she came across a swath of what had once been woods. “The forest was gone, and there was just this tumbled array of logs and logging slash,” she said. “You couldn’t even really walk through the clear cut. You had to climb over everything.” At the time, she said, it might not have registered to her younger self as a watershed moment. “But it was this new piece of information to me about our forest.”
Some two decades later, Francisco, 33, is a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, and leads SELC’s national forests and parks program, working with other outside groups to advocate to the U.S. Forest Service to improve management and protect publicly held lands. That includes the forest where she first saw what indiscriminate logging could do. In the last few years, much of her work has focused on the George Washington, the million-acre forest now at a turning point as the Forest Service prepares to release a new management plan that will determine how it’s accessed and used for the next 15 years.
Francisco grew up on a 200-acre farm in Augusta County, where she spent much of her time outside, riding her horse and hiking in the woods. She originally studied English, but her early connection to the land eventually helped steer her to a career in environmental law. “I wanted to do something that I viewed as having a more concrete impact on peoples’ lives and on our community and the world in general,” she said. She landed a fellowship at the SELC’s Charlottesville headquarters right out of school in 2002, and has been there since.
Success in her line of work doesn’t involve dramatic courtroom scenes. “It’s a long administrative process,” she said—a lot of reading and a lot of meetings. One such success was a challenge to a timber sale several years ago in the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee, when the SELC convinced an appeals court to require the Forest Service to apply its own new and stricter forest management plan to a logging project it was planning to grandfather in.
The great thing about those long-slog lawsuits is that they often have a ripple effect, Francisco said, by establishing precedent. “I think we’ve been able to build on that,” she said. “We’ve seen this improvement in forest management without always having to resort to litigation.”
Sometimes, the job doesn’t involve a suit at all. Francisco has been closely involved in making recommendations to National Forest Service staff on drafting the new George Washington plan for years, trying to keep the SELC’s priorities—especially preventing natural gas drilling and fracking—front and center as the government maps out how the forest’s natural resources will be tapped in the coming decade and a half. She doesn’t see the Forest Service staff as adversaries, though. After all, most of them got to where they are because they love the land.
“In general, we often want the same outcome. We want thriving, sustainable forest ecosystems,” she said. “We don’t always have the same idea of how to get there, and we might have different ideas about what’s sustainable,” but they can usually find a wide middle ground. Often it’s in person. One of the best parts of the job is visiting the forest, sometimes with Forest Service staff. “We all love to get out in the field, and it’s always informative to look at things ‘on the ground’ and talk about it,” she said. “We can often come to an understanding.”
The George Washington management plan is now in the government’s hands. The Forest Service was expected to release the final plan before the end of the year, but it may take several more months, the SELC says.
Whatever the plan dictates, Francisco’s mission is the same. She said a Tennessean she met while battling the Cherokee National Forest logging project summed it up well.
“He said, ‘We’re seeing the forest the way it could be and it should be,’” she said. “That stuck with me. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to protect and conserve the southern Appalachian National Forests for what they can be, and they should be.”