How Many Trees Should NC's National Forests Lose?

Dec 1, 2014

Credit Flickr

It's a touchy debate, consisting of rather loaded language. But, surprisingly, there may be a consensus somewhere in the underbrush.

Earlier this month, the Southern Environmental Law Center put out a release saying new plans to open 700,000 acres of Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests up for timber operations were a dramatic shift in policy:

The Forest’s new proposal would inevitably increase logging over the levels of recent years, though the precise amount has not been disclosed.

"This increase would come from ramping up logging all over the forest, including backcountry areas like the South Mills River area, home to the popular Black Mountain Trail," said Hugh Irwin, conservation planner for The Wilderness Society. According to Forest Service documents, such areas would be managed for "timber production," which it interprets as "the purposeful growing and harvesting of crops of trees to be cut into logs."

The release raised the possibility of the U.S. Forest Service needing to build new roads through the land to handle the operations.

"What this reflects is the US Forest Service's policy to expand areas for timber management," said DJ Gerken, senior attorney for the SELC.

This comes about as part of a new management plan for the two forests makes its way through various stages of approval. It's the first such plan in 20 years.

But Gordon Warburton, a biologist with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission says the concerns as expressed in the release misrepresent what the USFS is hoping to do. He says timber operations have always been part of the national forest model, unlike the pristine nature of a national park.

'The United States Forest Service lands have different goals. .. it's multiple use. And timber production is one of those goals.'

"A national park is a fine model, and it has its purposes and goals, but the United States Forest Service lands have different goals." said Warburton. "And it's multiple use. And timber production is one of those goals."

What's interesting is that most everyone seems to agree that some timber operations are desirable if not necessary.

"We're in favor of restoration-based logging" said Gerken, with the SELC. "The big challenge is that the Forest Service is saying [logging] can happen just about anywhere."

Warburton points out that much of those 700,000 acres aren't really an option for timber operations, because of their locations on a hill, or relative to trails. He says the U.S.F.S. has no interest in industrial-scale  logging, especially in the forests. But, some science-based approaches are necessary to keep the diversity of species on the land high.

"Over 80% of the forest is now aged over 75 or 80 years old," said Warburton. "While that's good for some species, it's not good for all species."

The plan revisions are currently in the public comments period. A final plan is not expected to be in place until 2016.

French Broad Tributary, Pisgah National Forest, near Brevard, North Carolina
Credit Jason A.G. / Flickr/Creative Commons