images/voice_uploads/VA-wilderness-mary-burnham.gif">The face of Southern Appalachia is rapidly changing. It’s valleys and mountaintops are beginning to show their age at the hands of new development and mismanaged forestlands. A growing environmental awareness among residents of the region has provided fertile ground for organizations working to lessen the growing pains of modernity.
The three organizations profiled in this edition of Appalachian Voices are just a few of the groups striving to meet the area’s ecological, community and economic needs. They have been chosen as innovative examples of how grassroots can grow into a forest of possibilities.
Southern Forestry Foundation
Growing with Industry
Russ Cook’s hometown of Canton, N.C. is known by its smell. Home to Blue Ridge Paper Products, the smell of bleach and sulfur linger in the air long after the sun sets each day. It is the scent of magazine pages, newspaper print and toilet paper beginning their journey into the consumer market.
Canton is the stomping ground of loggers and paper mill workers, many of whom spend their off hours outside. Cook fishes, hunts game and hikes the land surrounding his Western North Carolina home whenever he can. “I’m outdoors all the time,” he admitted.
Cook is at home in the woods. He has spend years getting to know the area, the wildlife and the trees, though he has noticed gaps in the landscape, clear cut areas that leave the land looking like a child with missing teeth.
Some may think that loggers and environmentalists are at odds with each other, but over the past few months, Cook has discovered that the union of the two unlikely allies may be the best way for his community to be better served by the timber industry.
By introducing loggers to environmental concepts, local hands can be trained in innovative logging techniques that can actually improve the environment while building the local economy.
Cook has long been involved in the contract grading and hauling business. When Biltmore Estate hired him to haul timber from their land, he was introduced to a concept he had never considered – sustainable forestry.
Biltmore Forest, in association with The Southern Forestry Foundation (SFF), had started a forestry management plan to sustainably harvest timber on Biltmore’s land.
As part of the program, the SFF brought loggers trained in European forestry practices to Biltmore. With them came machinery that had less detrimental environmental impact than logging machinery traditionally used and a wealth of knowledge in forest management.
Dave Sienko, trained by the Game of Logging Institute, was one of the visiting loggers. A native of Halstead, Pennsylvania, Sienko took Cook on as an apprentice and taught him the forest management plans, even those created by educated foresters, are not necessarily sustainable. Conventional forestry plans are usually designed to create maximum profit in a short amount of time. Sustainable planning focuses on managing land to make sure that people took a look at the science of logging they would change their opinions about how logging affects the environment.”
SFF is trying to exemplify the best in the bunch. Lislotte Harberts, co-founder of the organization, explained, “Many forests have been badly abused. We are bringing them back to balance.” Certain tree species, once over-harvested, can return with good forest management along with the animals that they encourage.
Part of the SFF’s plan to restore forest balance lies with the training of local loggers. Their sustainable training course, meant primarily for people who have a background in conventional logging, is implemented in two phases - an apprentice and the journeyman phase. Each phase lasts for three months. After program completion, loggers will be certified in sustainable methods as a Southern Forestry Foundation Master Logger.
Some of the skills learned during training include awareness of what concentration of wildlife species should live in a healthy forest, and how to wedge a tree so that it will fall without harming new growth around it, a concept known as directional felling.
Many of the loggers going through the program will already know the forest by its face, but by learning the science of their trade, they will learn to recognize its voice.
Harberts said, “In the end, our foresters learn how to imitate nature. In nature there are storms that take trees. Our foresters become the human hand of nature.”
“We study the forest and it tells us a story,” she explained. Every tree that is marked to be cut has an explanation as to why it is a good choice for extraction. Loggers in training question, “Why only so many, why a hole here?” Harberts follows their questions with detailed explanations, taking into account the other plant and animal species in the surrounding area and even elements of the soil. Each tree that is cut has a long list of reasons to justify its falling.
Loggers in training have to be paid, and SFF hopes that advocates from the timber industry as well as environmental organizations will fund the sustainable forestry-training program.
Harberts reasoned, “If we don’t work together with timber companies and environmental organizations we’re not going to get much done. Once we have enough skilled operators and foresters that can help with setting up sustainable forests, it will change the picture for both sides. It’s a step by step process.”
The United States’ status as the #1 consumer of wood products in the world indicates that logging is going to be big industry for a long while. SFF hopes that its efforts will make the future of the timber industry more sustainable.
In addition to sustainable field practices, the organization strives to provide its foresters with business plans and financial education. Sustainability is, after all, a term that is needed for household incomes not just forests.
Cook, one of SFF’s newest trainees, recently found himself in a large corporate bookstore, philosophizing further on the meaning of sustainability. He was drawn to the rows of glossy publications, including one produced by the Sierra Club. “I just couldn’t help but think to myself this magazine is made out of wood products.” And at that moment, he realized that his newfound responsibility was one that he shared with everyone within the confines of his culture.
No matter how sustainably Cook harvests timber, he realizes the demand for his product needed to be reduced. He said, “I think people need to look at the products they use everyday. I, for one, am always anxious to learn a better way.”
Land Trust for the Little Tennessee
Land is for Locals
As the Southern Appalachians become increasingly desirable as a second-home getaway, many families are faced with hefty tax burdens left by seasonal residents that migrate elsewhere for the winter, leaving 4,000 square foot “cabins” behind.
The financial burden of land tax can become so high that families find it difficult to keep their land intact, ushering in new stages of development for the well-to-do. In Macon County, fifty percent of the local housing permits requested were from out of state residents, indicating that half of the homes being constructed were for seasonal residents.
Segments of the local population have reacted by selling off large parcels of land and live off of inflated profits, made possible by the influx of wealthy transplants. Other community members see development as a thief of their environment, community and mountain heritage.
Nationwide, there are more than 1200 land trust organizations attempting to provide options for landowners interested in keeping their land intact and undeveloped. North Carolina is home to 24 land trusts, one of which is The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, an organization focused on preserving land in the Little Tennessee River Basin.
Like many other land trust programs, the LTLT provides options for landowners that can help protect family land from pressures by creating tax benefits through conservation. In exchange for turning over the development rights of personal land, landowners receive the comfort of knowing that their land will not be developed beyond recognition and, through management plans, the health of their plant and wildlife populations may improve for future generations.
In the interest of protecting private holdings as well as local forests, both organizations and individuals are being forced to develop new ways of managing and generating income from the forest highlands, such as through sustainable forestry practices. Ironically, it may be the sustainable cutting of trees that ultimately saves the forest.
Dennis Desmond, forester for the LTLT, said, “The main pressure on our forests in this area is not logging, though that’s a concern. Unless we show people the best use of a forest is to work it, they’re going to sell it offand subdivide it. Then the forests are cleared for houses and driveways.
The U.S. Forest Service predicts that the Blue Ridge Mountains will lose an estimated 650,000 acres of forestland by the year 2020, primarily due to residential development. As large forested areas are increasingly fragmented, both the public and private sector must consider the impact this loss will have on water quality, wildlife habitat, timber production and mountain communities.
A land trust is meant to slow area development, not to limit personal use. Each conservation solution is customized to benefit the landowner while maintaining the environmental integrity of their land. If the landowner wants to ensure that their children will be able to build on family land, they can insure the possibility by setting a limited number of houses to be built.
When a landowner approves an easement with LTLT, the organization undertakes the responsibility to make sure that the restrictions they request are upheld over time. Usually, the easement is approved to allow landowners to continue to use the land as they always have, passing it to their heirs, who will be held to the standards specified in the easement. Each easement is crafted to suit donors’ needs and wishes.
To become a participant in land trust programs, you must have land that the organization is interested in protecting. For the LTLT, any amount of land on the Little Tennessee River would most likely be taken into the program, whereas a few acres of woodland might be declined unless it is home to an endangered animal or plant species. Land acceptance is based on what the organization deems worth conserving for the greater good of the community.
The LTLT recently joined with Western Carolina University, Duke University, The Conservation Fund and the Region A Council of Governments in a three-year initiative to research and promote sustainable forestry practices around the Little Tennessee River basin. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the National Forest Foundation have also contributed grants to assist in the development of new programs to help communities combat inappropriate development.
The LTLT initiative will, over three years, seek to develop a scientifically-based forest-conservation planning process for the Little Tennessee basin, promote diversification of both timber and non-timber forest products, educate forestry practitioners and land owners in forest management and demonstrate conservation easements as an economic alternative to residential subdivision for forestland owners.
A major goal of the initiative will be to ensure that local community leaders are actively involved so that the project remains responsive to local concerns. In Jackson County, LTLT is working with county commissioners to raise awareness about the opportunities open to land owners. “You have to know the community to come up with viable solutions,” Desmond stressed.
The initiative focuses on a “Working Forest” concept, meant to allow financial, as well as environmental sustainability. It is an initiative that will empower local communities to hold their lands so that it can by passed on for generations to come.
The LTLT hope to increase their community outreach in the next year. they currently have eight demonstration sties in various stages of development. One site has been thinned of pine for forest health. “We weed out weaker trees to help others flourish, Desmond explained. The thinning prevents the encroachment of the destructive pine beetle.
He stressed “if we left it to Mother Nature, she wouldn’t know how to deal with these exotics,” Desmond said of the insects that are increasingly problematic to Southern Forests.
“We’re no longer in a natural environment that can self regulate. We need active management.”
The LTLT’s sustainable-forestry project was conceived and designed by Dr. Peter Bates and Paul Carlson, local people with vested interest in the area. They understood the concerns specific to the upper Tennessee River Basin. By providing alternatives to land sale, the partnership hopes to revitalize the economy in in rural communities while protecting the dignity of the land itself.
Appalachian Sustainable Development
Local From Cut to Finish
Southern Appalachia abounds in small treasures that can be found with plow and trowel. Among the prized are the gently curved shoes of a working horse. Most of the time, an excavated horseshoe is decades old, but if you live in an area where Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD) is at work, it may just be a few days off the horse.
ASD forester Emily Duncan has noted increased interest for horse logging over the past few years, “People are really interested in working with horses. It wasn’t that long ago that a lot of logging was done by horses. I think people respect and appreciate that,” she said.
Horses are able to maneuver through smaller areas than conventional machines, causing less damage to timber and little soil erosion. Though horse logging has been widely accepted in the Appalachian region, ASD recognizes that horse logging is not appropriate for every situation and also employs the use of environmentally sensitive timber harvest technologies and equipment.
The organization has set standards of sustainable forest management that direct planning and implementation of their activities in the field.The standards were set by state and federal foresters and encompass the input of a wide range of people, including environmental groups. ASD’s self-set standards are enforced by an outside task force that oversees production.
ASD actively trains loggers in timber harvesting practices and other business aspects that ensure the ecological and economic soundness of their jobs. They also reward environmental logging performance with enhanced payment systems.
“We think it’s important to not only focus on forest management plans, but to process the materials locally to keep the total value within the community,” Duncan explained. Local processing of forest resources, rather than outsourcing, creates jobs and decreases embodied costs.
ASD’s processing center, Sustainable Woods, is located in Castlewood, VA and is equipped with a portable sawmill and solar kiln to produce dry boards. The site produces high quality commercial grade products using little energy that is not harvested by the sun. Using a solar kiln takes longer than traditional drying methods, but produces a higher quality product because slow drying allows for less curvature.
ASD rewards participants in its program a premium above what is being paid locally by conventional harvesters for various tree species. The market premium is made possible because of the increasing demand for lumber harvested from sustainably managed forests. “It’s always going to be more expensive to practice sustainably,” Duncan explained. “With the global economy, it will always be cheaper bringing it from somewhere else.” Conscientious businesses, governments and consumers that are concerned about where their wood comes from are driving this new forest products market. They are disenchanted by the idea that their purchasing habits are perpetuating questionable forest management. ASD’s standards ensure that they can invest in wood that was sustainably managed.
Anthony Flaccavento, ASD Director, said “there are a lot of people in this area concerned about the health of the forest, but there’s little awareness this option exists. They don’t know they can make a difference by supporting sustainable forestry. The organic agricultural movement has shown the benefit of people becoming aware of its values over decades.
As people have become more concerned about their health, they have also paid more attention to the way the way their food is produced.
Flaccavento hopes the forestry industry can benefit from this increased awareness. As forests continue to show symptoms of abuse, he hopes that concerned people will be willing to take action with their wallets.
In conventional Appalachian forestry, the most valuable trees are harvested first to maximize short-term profits. ASD is trying to assist people in learning how to manage forests as a long-term investment.
Most of the forests ASD undertakes have already been harvested of their high-grade timber. To bring the forests back a level that produces high-quality timber they utilize the lesser-loved species with great success.
Much of the wood is used for flooring. it is referred to as character wood due to unique knots, and black-brown golden streaks. The abnormalities of the wood create designs of nature that are very different from the blond planes of wood that high-grade timbers create. “A lot of people are drawn to this flooring because it looks real. It looks like real wood,” Duncan said.
ASD serves landowners in Southeastern Virginia, Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina. By keeping their operations close to home, they cut transportation costs and are always able to tuck their timber into their own mill at the end of the day.
Local homeowners and organizations have responded well to the process. As an example, Bristol, Virginia’s new public library expansion will feature ASD’s local wood.
Through partnerships with local wood manufacturers, ASD’s lumber is available in custom cabinets, trim and molding, hardwood flooring, wainscoting, paneling and finished lumber. The processing center also sells kiln-dried lumber and green lumber, sawdust, and firewood.
The concentration on the business side of ASD, Sustainable Woods, creates a new marketplace that is accessible to people interested in supporting sustainable practices.
To become part of the Sustainable Forest Management program with ASD, you must own a minimum of 10 acres. But to support sustainable forestry by adding a beautifully designed front porch to your home, you only need an abode, the drive to contribute to the region’s sustainability and maybe a few rocking chairs – made of sustainably certified wood, of course.