Watershed Events


The southern Appalachians are blessed with abundant rainfall, an enviable situation to much of the nation. This rain falling on forest ecosystems of the mountains provides our communities with clean drinking water; whether from streams or aquifers, we depend on these watersheds for the supply.

Faced with economic needs, some cities and towns throughout the region have been looking toward their watershed lands to generate income. While logging or developing the land presents money-making options, communities may also allow a conservancy or land trust to purchase a conservation easement on the land, thereby preserving it and also generating income. Thanks to the efforts of many citizens, and a state program called the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund, municipal watershed lands are increasingly being placed in easements, continuing a trend away from development and logging on watersheds.

“Watersheds are a very hot topic now in many respects,” observes Carl Silverstein of the Asheville-based Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC). He should know. The Conservancy has recently helped secure easements for the watershed lands of the towns of Canton and Montreat, providing protection from logging and development. SAHC has also been discussing easement proposals with the western Carolina towns of Waynesville and Woodfin for their watersheds.

The Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF) is a “great thing for North Carolina,” said Silverstein. The Fund had about $62 million in both this year and last year’s budget, half of which is used on restoration and half for protecting pristine waters. The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and CWMTF are co-owners of the recently finalized easement on the town of Canton’s Rough Creek watershed. CWMTF also provided a grant of $3.9 million to purchase an easement to protect Montreat’s 2,460-acre watershed (protecting 15 miles of “High Quality” waters flowing into the Swannanoa River) with SAHC monitoring the easement.
CWMTF’s grant was matched by an equal donation from the landholder, the Mountain Retreat Association, since the appraised development value of the land was almost $8 million.

A winning combination

Silverstein points to the Rough Creek easement as an example of a win-win situation for the community and the environment. The Canton town aldermen needed some money, but also wanted to protect the land and were concerned about threats from development since the Rough Creek watershed is very scenic, with great views of Mt. Pisgah. The easement they decided on prevents logging and development, but retains the right to have recreation on the land.

SAHC had to come up with $1.1 million of a total $2 million needed to acquire the easement, and did so with help from private donors, including Brad Stanback, the son of noted philanthropist Fred Stanback who Silverstein calls one of the “most passionate conservationists” in the southeast. The Clean Water Management Trust Fund covered the remaining amount. “The state will give up to half of the funds, but likes to have at least a bit over half covered by the trust,” Silverstein said. “I feel certain that if this deal hadn’t come along, the property would have been developed.

Andy Brown, of Equinox Environmental, a consulting company that did detailed mapping of the Rough Creek watershed, also acknowledged citizen involvement in protecting the land saying, “Much of the credit for the easement arrangement goes to Garrett Smathers, who also provided data and was the champion behind protection from the start.” Smathers, a retired National Park Service scientist and Haywood County resident has also been active in the current discussions on whether or not Waynesville’s proposed easement may include a logging option.

Islands of biodiversity

“These mountain watersheds are not really suitable for logging,” says Smathers. “Most are too steep and subject to a lot of erosion. It’s best to leave them alone to nature.” He notes that all of the area has been cut before, much of it at the beginning of the 20th century. “You can still see the scars,” he says, speaking of solid, barren patches of rock visible on hillsides. “The soils went with the logs, leaving between 30 and 60 percent of hillsides covered only with a thin veneer of subsoil that is just starting to come back.” Smathers also notes “it takes 200 to 300 years to reach a mature climax forest in the Appalachians”.

Both Brown and Smathers speak of the biological value of watershed lands. “A lot of these watersheds are islands of biodiversity — you see a lot of rare plants and natural communities,” says Brown. In the Rough Creek watershed, Equinox found abundant diversity including 12 natural communities (with four being rare), 24 rare plants, turkey, bear, owl and other wildlife habitat, plus existing trails and parks.

Critical public input

Recent political dramas surrounding the Woodfin and Waynesville watersheds also serve as reminders of the importance of public involvement in issues involving our natural resources. In autumn of 2003, the Woodfin community found out about plans to log their watershed by chance when two foresters were found on private land by a neighbor of the watershed. This neighbor had no idea what they were doing on his property until they told him they were surveying the watershed for logging.

“The discovery of this was an extremely fortunate matter of chance,” said Woodfin resident James Lattimore. “There was no public knowledge of this, no public hearings at all, about what the board was planning to do, which was virtual clearcutting of the watershed.”

“Woodfin water consumers were never notified by mail of the logging plans”, said Woodfin resident Robin Cape. “Citizens started holding public forums to make up for the lack of public hearings. The water board was not forthcoming on comprehensive plan on what the money from logging was needed for.”

In response, Lattimore, Cape and Henry Chandler successfully ran against the incumbent water board and unseated them last November. Cape feels the election was largely won on the logging issue and adds, “After I listened to the constituency, I am very much against cutting the trees.” The current Woodfin water board is hoping to raise enough money to protect its 1860-acre watershed (which contains the headwaters of historic Reems Creek) and last December, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy applied to the CWMTF for a $4.1 million grant to purchase the easement.

At a Waynesville town meeting on April 29, a group of citizens convinced the Board of Aldermen to delay endorsing an easement on their watershed that would have allowed an option for future logging, in order to consider alternatives. The Board also wanted to delay their easement decision to allow for more public input, and may now also be considering an easement without a logging option.

Smathers believes the Waynesville watershed, at 8,400 acres, is “probably one of the most diversified outside of the Asheville watershed (20,000+ acres). It ranges from 3,200 feet to over 6000 feet and features every type of ridge and hollow,” and probably contains 40 to 50 endangered species of plants and animals.

He also believes the economic value of the water far exceeds short term gain from a timber sale, and notes that with growing populations and droughts, there could be pressure in the near future for Appalachian water to be exported to nearby expanding metropolises. “You could see water going out of this area – clean water is scarce,” he said.

Andy Brown also cited values to the community from recreational opportunities. “Done properly, you can open up some watershed lands for parks and trails,” he said. “In most cases all these values outweigh the short term dollar benefit of logging. The main point to emphasize is that through preserving its watershed, a community can achieve economic benefit while at the same time ensuring a quality flow of water into perpetuity.”

To support further preservation of watershed lands, contact your state legislator to encourage them to support continued full funding of the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. For more information about the Fund, visit www.cwmtf.net

For more information about the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, visit www.appalachian.org


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