The old-growth forest named for Joyce Kilmer is legendary among lovers of wilderness. The dedication of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, in Graham County, celebrates its 75th anniversary on Saturday, even as scientists may have underestimated the rate of decline among hemlocks in the region’s old-growth areas. Photo by Mike Belleme

Editor’s note: This is the first story in a two-part series on Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness and old-growth forests in Western North Carolina. The dedication of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest will celebrate its 75th anniversary with a rededication ceremony on Saturday, July 30. Coming tomorrow: Some of the surprising challenges to Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness and its future.

Majestic groves of huge, old trees evoke reverence, affection and poetry. Consider the familiar verse by poet Joyce Kilmer, which contains the line “I think that I shall never see/A poem as lovely as a tree.”

“Without fail, when I take people out for a hike in the forest, people want to touch trees,” says Will Blozan, an expert arborist and documentarian based in Asheville whose passion for old trees is legendary. “Consciously or not, people want to connect. They don’t do this with buildings. Trees have the power to draw people in, and the bigger and older, the better.”

The forest named for Joyce Kilmer is legendary, too. In 1936, the U.S. Forest Service dedicated a 3,800-acre stand of old-growth forest in Graham County to Kilmer, after the poet-soldier was killed in World War I. In 1975, Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest was joined with a much larger tract to become the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, which is itself part of Nantahala National Forest, one of North Carolina’s four national forests. That led to the protection of some 17,400 acres of mature forest (not all of which is old growth) from logging, road-building and mechanized activities in perpetuity.

On July 30, the National Forests of North Carolina and the Partners of Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness will stage a rededication ceremony and related events to celebrate the 75th anniversary of protected grove, arguably the most well-known tract of old growth in the region.

WNC: home to the most documented old growth in the southern Appalachians

Today, Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock, plus the adjacent Citico Wilderness in Tennessee, forms a sizeable undeveloped landscape that has been slowly recovering from the era of industrial logging. Experts argue that the place is steadily regaining the characteristics of the ancient, primary forest that once covered the southern mountains. The majority of the big trees in the area are tulip poplars and hemlocks, which are threatened by the woolly adelgid, an invasive pest that kills hemlocks.

And so, on the eve of the area’s anniversary, it’s clear, too, that the recovery of these stands has faced real setbacks.

A tree in Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, located in Graham County. Photo by Mike Belleme

Joyce Kilmer is the best known, but not the only, old growth in WNC. An archipelago of old growth stands have been described in Western North Carolina, thanks to a loose-but-dedicated network of experts, some working for nonprofit conservation organizations, such as the WNC Alliance, and others, like independent arborists Will Blozan and Rob Messick. Old growth is more than just big trees. Sometimes, in fact, the trees can be quite small. Instead, old growth is considered a set of ecosystem conditions, particular to the forest type, plus the absence of signs of human disturbance.

Among the largest of these areas is around Mackey Mountain, northeast of Asheville, and in the Black Mountains, near Mt. Mitchell. [See below, and download here, a map of old-growth forests in the region, courtesy of the Southern Appalachia Forest Coalition.] Hugh Irwin, conservation planner with the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, says WNC has the most documented old growth forest in the southern Appalachians in part because the complex topography of these ridges tended to prevent access during the logging era. Even in the area that would become Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock, the Babcock Lumber Company of Pittsburgh had logged roughly two-thirds of the Slickrock Creek watershed before construction of the Calderwood Dam in 1922 flooded the company’s railroad access and put an end to logging operations in the area.

Advocates, scientists and others like Irwin view the mapped old growth areas as inspiration for the region’s ecological restoration, where high-quality, mature forest tracts anchor a larger network of natural areas that sustain native plants and animals, especially those that do not thrive in close proximity to human development.

Scientists may have underestimated speed of hemlocks’ decline

Large trees are valuable as timber. Air pollution, exotic pests and pathogens have been introduced by human activities. Among the most devastating – and arguably most reported – of these introduced pests is the hemlock woolly adelgid, which first arrived on Japanese nursery stock in the 1950s and appeared in the southern mountains around 2001.

The rate of hemlock decline since that time has taken many experts by surprise.

“The loss of hemlock is really huge in these ecosystems,” says Neil Pederson, an old growth specialist who conducts research in the Tree-Ring Laboratory at Columbia University. Pederson sees hemlocks as a “foundation species” – a species that heavily influences local conditions, and facilitates key ecosystem processes such as energy and nutrient flows, water availability and the rate of decomposition.

Removing a foundation species from an ecosystem may have decidedly negative consequences, Pederson says, such as changes in the delivery of water downstream.

Indeed, recent research at the Forest Service’s Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory suggests that the loss of hemlocks in the southern mountains could alter the flow of water to the Chattahoochee River, whose headwaters are in north Georgia and Western North Carolina, ultimately reducing water delivered to thirsty Atlanta. Hemlocks mediate soil moisture levels and stabilize the temperature and the flow rates of local streams. As a result, streams flowing through hemlock forests support unique assemblages of salamanders, fish and other organisms that are intolerant of warmer, drier environments. Some of these organisms are key drivers for tourism and local economies. Trout, for example, favored for fishing, require the cold waters of these mountain streams for survival.

Pederson says the scientific community may have underestimated the speed at which the hemlocks throughout the area would die. “When I see hemlock forests in the Smokies change from mostly alive to mostly dead in six months, it’s shocking – I can’t believe I’m seeing this in my scientific lifetime,” he told CPP.

Decline comes at a cost

The economic impact of the loss mature forest ecosystems is hard to estimate in dollars, but there’s a growing science around the “ecosystem services” these forests provide.

“The latest calculations are pretty astounding for what old forests provide us,” Pederson says, particularly in a time of climate change, with the excess carbon in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. “Besides holding soil and cleaning water and air, perhaps their most relevant and important role is in carbon sequestration.”

Until the mid-2000s, Pederson says, the prevailing wisdom was that old growth forests aren’t growing much, and thus don’t take up much carbon, which led some to argue that the only way we can remove carbon from the atmosphere is to grow young forests. “But now, there is a growing body of literature that says old growth forests store a lot of carbon, and continue to take it up. They are another place where we can reduce global CO2. So the loss of hemlocks from the landscape is a significant loss.”

For Graham County, where Joyce Kilmer is located, tourism to places such as Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock is a significant economic driver, as there are few industries to stoke the local economy, according to Pamela Dickey, manager at the Employment Security Commission’s JobLink Career Center in Robbinsville. Graham County often ranks near the bottom for per capita income in North Carolina and at or near the top for unemployment, which rose to 14.2 percent there in May, Dickey reports.

Even so, Sherry Brantley, director of travel and tourism for the county, says the loss of the big hemlocks “really hasn’t had an impact” on visitation to the county. As for Joyce Kilmer, “it just looks like a storm went through, like one of many we’ve had,” she says. “Visitation is trending upward now” for the area, she adds, measured by the occupancy tax collected in area hotels.

Meanwhile, the National Park Service reports that the number of visitors to the Smokies fell 17.6 percent in June of this year compared to June, 2010. Statistics show visits in the first half of 2011 were down 11.9 percent overall, and camping is down 6.8 percent. At the same time, budgets for both the national parks and the Forest Service are expected to shrink in the coming fiscal year.

It all adds up to a challenge for the managers of the public resources in Western North Carolina. Coming tomorrow: Some of the surprising challenges to Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness and its future.

The Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition has an ongoing effort to map existing old growth forest in the southern Blue Ridge, based on extensive fieldwork by experts including biologist Josh Kelly of the WNC Alliance, and independent arborists Will Blozan and Rob Messick. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park probably hosts the largest consolidated acreage of old growth forest in the region, with many trees predating European settlement. While some areas had been subject to logging, farming, and other human uses prior to the park’s establishment in 1936, the National Park Service estimates that some 187,000 acres – about one-third of the park – is old growth. Map courtesy of the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition

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  1. Sorry to burst everyone’s bubble but Joyce Kilmer was logged by John Denton, (who’s farm consisted of ALL poplar cove) Sherman West a settler in Kilmer and another settler that I cant remember the name. I’m pretty sure there was another settler or 2 in there. It was also partially logged for Belding Lumber Company then finished by W.T Cloer. No old growth in Joyce Kilmer. It was dedicated to him for the diversity of trees. More species there than any where else in USA and more than all of Europe.

  2. I enjoyed this article. I have wonderful memories of being in the old-growth forests while researching for my book “Among the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests.” The trees in the Joyce Kilmer forest are amazing! And yes, I did have to touch them.

  3. Great article – thanks! Kilmer has always been a favorite spot and I helped stop the skyway from bisecting it many years ago.
    I own land with a couple of stands of old hemlocks (and many smaller ones) on the Calfpasture River north of Goshen VA. One of the larger hemlocks has recently died (hopefully from the river undercutting it), but I am wondering: (1) how do you spot an adeligid infestation and (2) is there ANYTHING I can do to save these trees?