Buzz Williams, Chattooga Conservancy, Southside Project
Buzz Williams, 72, works for the Chattooga Conservancy. In August he showed a painted orange ring around a black gum tree on Brushy Mountain. The ring indicates trees that will be spared, but in reality, he said, most of the canopy on this site will be cut for a proposed timber restoration project, called the Southside Project. Photo: Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

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Today Carolina Public Press completes its four-part series focusing on the Southside Project, a recent initiative by the U.S. Forest Service to make the national forest more resilient and sustainable.

Click here to read the previous parts of this series.

In August, Blue Ridge Public Radio reported a Protect Pisgah rally was held outside the U.S. Forest Service’s headquarters in Asheville, drawing hundreds. The protesters held a pink banner with hearts to represent the public comments that were part of the process to create the Nantahala Pisgah Forest Plan

Organizers of the protest called for the strengthening of forest protection and held the rally during a critical phase of the Forest Service’s planning.  They held it during the objection phase — the final step of the planning revision process for the new Forest Service initiative.

Will Harlan, one of the organizers of the rally, a resident of Barnardsville in northern Buncombe County and senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, was among the most vocal critics of the forest plan. He spoke to CPP in June about his continuing concerns with the forest plan.

“I think there’s a real disconnect between the Forest Service’s internal goals and the actual people using the forest and what they want,” said Harlan.

Harlan’s objection letter on behalf of the organization submitted on March 20,, called I Heart Pisgah, said the plan failed to properly evaluate roughly 5,000 acres of forest in the Craggy Mountain and Big Ivy sections of Pisgah National Forest in Buncombe County.  For Harlan, timber projects, such as the timber sale on Brushy Mountain, continue to demonstrate the disconnect between the public’s desire for old-growth protection and the Forest Service’s actions.

“If there’s so much public, political, scientific and collective support for an area to be protected, that’s an easy way for the Forest Service to say, ‘Yes, we hear you, we will protect this area,’” he said. “Then they will have more support when they want to do logging in places that are appropriate.”

According to the I Heart Pisgah website, forest activists “warned of tree-sits and direct action if the Forest Service failed to protect the ancient forests and biodiversity of the Pisgah-Nantahala.”

“This plan weakens protections for the country’s most visited national forest,” said Harlan. 

“I recognize that there are places where responsible logging can occur and needs to occur, but this plan doesn’t ensure that the Forest Service conducts that logging responsibly or protects the most important, biologically diverse places where people love to spend their time.

The disconnect, said Harlan, may lead to a lack of trust with the public and complicate future decisions around timber harvesting and old-growth forests. 

Objections to the new forest plan

The volume of objections — from local governments, organizations and individuals — is evidence of the friction about elements of the forest plan, including how they manage old growth. The agency received thousands of objections, which were whittled to 38 “unique eligible objections” that will be considered by the Forest Service. Among the thousands of comments received during the objection period, the Forest Service eliminated ineligible objections and consolidated similar concerns.

A substantial number of objections to the U.S. Forest Service’s proposed land management plan for Pisgah and Nantahala national forests is leading the agency to take more time than expected to evaluate the issues and concerns raised. The plan was released in January after a decade of analysis and collaboration with the public.

The objection phase is the final step of the planning revision process, which has invigorated debate about the best way to manage Western North Carolina’s million acres of national forest. 

The Forest Service hosted a virtual public resolution meeting from Aug. 2-4 to further examine and better understand the objections. The three-day meeting was designed for the Forest Service to listen to and better grasp the range of objections to the plan that included issues such as Wild and Scenic River designation, climate change and road building. 

The agency’s Southern region forester will respond to the objections that may contain written instructions to James Melonas, National Forests of North Carolina supervisor, to amend elements of the proposed plan before it’s finalized. The Forest Service has confirmed it will release the final plan late this year or early next.

The closing act of the plan revision, however, may not resolve long-standing grievances with public forest management, including the protection of old-growth forests. Some forest advocates want to see more protections around special places throughout Pisgah and Nantahala forests. It’s possible that the proposed plan may be altered before it’s finalized; however, any changes will depend on the analysis of objections by the Forest Service’s review team. 

Present and future old growth

The forest plan decision overlaps with the recent timber sale that is part of the Southside Project in Nantahala National Forest. This timber sale has drawn anger from environmentalists opposed to cutting a patch of roughly two dozen acres of old-growth forest on Brushy Mountain near the North Carolina-South Carolina border  that’s habitat for a rare species of salamander. 

“We will continue to ask the Forest Service to leave those trees standing, and we hope that they will reconsider and cancel the contract that they’ve signed and reorganize the timber sale to exclude Brushy Mountain,” said MountainTrue biologist Josh Kelly. “We hope that the Forest Service doesn’t make it a practice to cut old-growth forest and to log in the habitat of species that are on their way to endangered species listing.”

Attorney Sam Evans of the Southern Environmental Law Center, or SELC, who participated in the forest plan objection resolution meetings last August, said the resolution meetings hosted by the Forest Service were productive. His organization objected to the Southside Project following the agency’s decision in 2018. The  objections included the failure of the Forest Service’s environmental study to analyze the direct and indirect impacts of logging existing old growth nor did it consider the cumulative impacts of logging in known green salamander habitat.

“I’m trying to be optimistic and give them the space to do the right thing [regarding the forest plan], but there’s only so much you can cover. It’s not like we were giving them new ideas,” he said, referring to the detailed comments given to the agency from several collaborative groups that participated in the planning process, including the Nantahala Pisgah Forest Partnership.

The SELC is an affiliate organization of the partnership. Among the partnership’s recommendations was to create an old-growth forest “cap and trade” network that would allow the addition of future, undiscovered patches of old growth in exchange for lower-quality forest within the old-growth network. The proposed 256,000-acre old-growth network includes current old-growth forested acres and land expected to age into old-growth conditions in the future

Meanwhile, in early August, the Forest Service executed the first of three timber sales of the Southside Project. The winning bid was awarded to Parton Lumber of Rutherford County and  includes the stand of old-growth forest on Brushy Mountain. 

Josh Kelly’s organization, MountainTrue, also informally bid on the project. It offered to exceed the Forest Service’s highest bid to leave the trees standing for at least 100 years. Kelly said the offer was to purchase carbon credits in exchange for leaving the trees standing and was proposed beyond the formal bidding process.

Future protections 

A century ago, Pisgah National Forest was created following a crisis that left the mountain’s forests decimated by blight and industrial-scale cutting.

Time and protection have restored the forests, but different dilemmas are facing Western North Carolina’s public forests: the impact of climate change and the loss of key wildlife and plant habitats.

The 1 million acres in Pisgah and Nantahala are a drop in the bucket of the 193 million acres in the entire National Forest System, yet they played an outsized role because of its extraordinary biodiversity and mature forests that protect the headwaters of rivers that supply drinking water to millions of people. They’re also among the nation’s most visited national forests for their beloved trails, wildlife, waterfalls and scenic vistas.

In the past, front-line officers, such as district rangers, made decisions based on scientific forestry and professional judgment with little public input. There were no laws prior to 1976 that required public input.

The ranger-know-all approach was replaced by the 1976 National Forest Management Act and the 2012 planning rules. The 2012 set of rules ensure forest plans would be more science based and include more public involvement in order to provide the direction and design of future projects, from trail building to wildlife habitat restoration. The rule would require that forest plans: 

  • Evaluate each forest’s capacity to consider climate change impacts and develop strategies to adapt and reduce vulnerability. 
  •  Encourage collaborative, science-based restoration of priority forest landscapes that include ecological, economic and social well-being. 
  • Intentionally connect people with nature when developing plan components in a bottom-up participatory process by listening and engaging with the public at each step of a plan development. 

There are currently 19 forest plans under revision throughout the United States. The Pisgah-Nantahala plan will be among the nation’s first that utilize the principles of the new planning rule. The Francis Marion National Forest in South Carolina was the first plan completed under the 2012 planning rule in May 2017. The plans set the strategies that guide the specific actions of future projects within the two national forests.

The principles of the new planning rule

This means that at the onset of any project, an interdisciplinary team of specialists will work with partners and the public to develop projects using in-depth, up-to-date local information. District rangers have the authority to approve projects.

According to Buzz Williams of the Chattooga Conservancy, the agency seems to be postponing hard decisions from the strategic planning level to projects where the discretion lands on the rangers to decide whether newly found sections of old growth should be protected. 

Williams explained to CPP in August that the outcome of the challenge over the stand on Brushy Mountain sets a precedent for future projects where old growth is in question. Among the Chattooga Conservancy’s concerns with the Southside Project is the discretion of district rangers to decide the fate of old-growth stands at the project level.  

“I try not to make it personal. It’s all about the agency and their mission,” Williams said. “This issue encompasses the plan revision, the Forest Service mission, and how they manage old growth. It’s all coming to head on this one little stand.”

The Forest Service has the scientific capacity and broad knowledge to implement targeted restoration to improve the condition of degraded forest land — whether that’s the protection of old-growth stands, managed fire or logging to create early successional habitat. A total of $5.5 billion from the  Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or IIJA, signed into law in November 2021, will fund collaborative forest restoration, prioritization of projects that increase wildfire resilience, and maintain and restore old-growth forests.

Lang Hornthal of EcoForesters, a nonprofit forestry organization based in Asheville and member of the Nantahala Pisgah Forest Partnership, said that the public should consider the complexity of forest management and the need to be able to adapt to unknown threats.

“Forestry is a lesson in adaptive management. You make the best decisions based on the outcomes you want to see and watch over time,” he said. “The approach of locking up anything that has value to a certain group isn’t practical.”

Adaptive forest management is the process of gathering and using scientific information to evaluate and improve forest management decisions and practices. Examples include using prescribed fire or timber harvesting to promote forest health by controlling the spread of insect infestations and to reduce competition among trees for nutrients, water and sunlight.

Gary Wein, a botanist and the executive director of the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust in Macon County near the Brushy Mountain site, said that protecting patches of old growth, big or small, should be a priority.

His organization, which is the oldest land trust in North Carolina, has conserved numerous old-growth sites in Western North Carolina, including a Macon County forest stand featuring a  5-century-old hemlock believed to be the oldest of its kind on the planet. 

Relying on the agency to protect old growth, said Wein, is a stretch, at best. 

“They’re managing these forests to harvest trees. That’s the direction they’ve taken,” he said. In fact, he emphasized that protection of old-growth stands must happen beyond national forest boundaries within private forests throughout the mountains.

According to the N.C. State Extension Forestry, 68% of the land throughout 25 Western North Carolina counties is forested. Among the forests of WNC, 69% is privately owned.  Therefore, creating a connected landscape across the mountains requires cooperation with and the inclusion of private landowners.

In the future, the Forest Service may play a larger role in supporting private lands near its boundaries. The IIJA will issue $1 billion in grants to help private forest owners, tribal communities and state agencies address at-risk forested landscapes.

An example is the private and public land conservation partnership on Yellow Mountain in the Roan Highlands in Avery County reported by CPP in May.

The future of old-growth forests

While the decision to harvest trees on Brushy Mountain precedes the completion of the forest plan, which will be finalized later this year or in early 2023, there is a sense among critics that the future plan leaves out protections for small patches of old-growth forests by placing them at risk of harvest. As a result, old-growth advocates may be reluctant to support future projects placing patches of old growth at risk.

The Forest Service may continue to harvest old-growth stands unless there is a mechanism, such as a “cap and trade” approach, in the forest plan ensuring protection of patches discovered within the footprints of future timber restoration projects. The Nantahala Pisgah Forest Partnership proposed a cap-and-trade solution that would be a pathway to smooth out project implementation by allowing additions of newly found old growth to a protected old-growth network in exchange for lower-quality forest that would be removed from the network.

A point of contention is that the proposed plan leaves patches of old growth at risk. The plan, said critics, leaves decisions about whether to protect or harvest patches of unknown old growth  to district rangers.

Sam Evans of the SELC told CPP in June that the Forest Service’s failure to provide  “a framework to differentiate and protect quality old growth means that with each project, there’s potential for conflict at the project level.”

A prelude to future conflicts is playing out over the patch of forest on the summit of Brushy Mountain.

Since harvesting trees on Brushy may not begin for several months or years, opponents may have an opportunity to consider other tactics to slow or derail the project.

 “The decision to sell verified old-growth forest for $550 per acre proves the Forest Service is not sincere about conserving old-growth forests,” said Kelly of MountainTrue.

The tension over what to do with Brushy Mountain underscores the nuanced rules and practices of managing one of America’s most diverse forest ecologies. Managing such a diverse landscape requires an approach that’s flexible enough to meet the range of values users place on the forest, but also finding the right places and employing effective techniques to maintain a variety of tree species, ages and sizes that attempts to replicate the natural order of the forest.

The Grandfather Restoration Collaborative since 2012 has restored over 40,000 acres of national forest in the Grandfather Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest.  The project relied on a range of private and public partners and is considered by many a success. The projects included reducing wildfire risk, restoring shortleaf pine stands and increasing wildlife openings for deer.

Kelly said that often conflicting interests regarding the forest plan and projects, such as Southside, are portrayed as a “zero-sum” conflict in which there is a one-to-one tradeoff between opposing forest interests, resulting in one winner and one loser.  In this case, said Kelly, it’s inaccurate to suggest that protecting old growth and creating young forest through timber harvests are incompatible with each other.

“Some members of the public voiced support for logging to create young forests, but that isn’t something we are opposed to,” said Kelly. “If old growth and young forest were at odds in this project, it was only because the Forest Service chose a poor location and refused to reconsider its choice.”

Yet how future projects play out may not emerge for years. Williams said the decision to harvest old growth on Brushy sets the precedent for where and which trees the agency chooses to harvest over the next two decades.

At stake are the benefits of functioning old growth, such as carbon storage to fight climate change and habitat for biologically sensitive species. 

The ecological benefits of old growth, said Williams, may be at stake if the Forest Service “prioritizes market-driven crop tree management.It’s time to address the real problem: The Forest Service needs a new mission.”

A summary of the Southside Project, facts and timeline of the project have been included below.

Purpose of Southside Project 

The primary focus of the project is to make the national forest more resilient and sustainable by producing favorable forest age class and vegetation structure and improving breeding and foraging habitat for wildlife by establishing young forest habitat in the 0 – 10 year age class that currently makes up approximately 1% of the project area.

Facts

  • The project will create 317 acres of young forest habitat through commercial timber harvest across 16 separate areas.
  • Analysis area: 18,943 acres in Nantahala National Forest in Jackson and Macon counties. 
  • Average forest opening size is 22 acres
  • 37% of the analysis area is designated as an old-growth patch.
  • In 10 years, approximately 11,000 acres in the analysis area will be 100 years or older.

Source for facts.

Jack Igelman

Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jack@igelman.com.

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