A publication of Appalachian Voices


A publication of Appalachian Voices


Is There A Kumbaya Moment Coming for the National Forests?

Pisgah

The disastrous late 19th and early 20th century clearcutting of the Southern Appalachians destroyed one of the world's most precious ecosystems. The 1911 passage of the Weeks Act gave the US Forest Service the chance to start heal the wounds. Photo courtesy of Randy Johnson

By Randy Johnson

As wildflowers and buds break out this spring in the Southern Appalachians, hope that a greener fate for federal forest lands will bloom as well.

On Feb. 9, 2012, the U.S. Forest Service and a handful of public and private collaborators — not all of them very collaborative in the past — announced a ten-year, $4.5 million plus effort to “restore” the forest landscape of Pisgah National Forest’s Grandfather Ranger District.

In the Blowing Rock area of western North Carolina, where the Grandfather District has seen its share of controversy, the move is seen as a harbinger of hope.

As recently as 2006, a dispute erupted over the size and visibility of timber cuts in Pisgah National Forest, just below the tourism town of Blowing Rock. But the “grandaddy” of all timber controversies exploded in 1988 in this same area. That battle and the following debate over clearcutting altered the course of forest management practices not only in the east, but the entire United States.

A Clear Cut Issue

Timber conflicts first surfaced in the 1970s when massive clearcuts in West Virginia’s Mononghela National Forest prompted congressional action that mandated the now routine forest planning process.

By the 1980s, many forests had offered timber management plans, but the continuing role of clearcutting had brought challenges from the public. By late May 1988, gaping timber cuts were visible in Pisgah National Forest under the Linn Cove Viaduct on the newly-opened Grandfather Mountain portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Votes of opposition came from chambers of commerce and tourism organizations. While travel ads for Asheville, another state tourism hot spot, pictured the city’s watershed forests — a clearcut had crept into the pristine scene of the North Carolina High Country. Outrage ensued.

Logging and tourism had squared off, and the scenic status of the Blue Ridge Parkway was at the heart of the debate.
It’s extremely difficult to argue that the Forest Service even considered scenery in 1988, when glaring timber harvests appeared directly below the final link of the Parkway at the same time it was opening to the public. Gary Everhardt, Parkway Superintendent at the time, didn’t like the clearcuts — neither did the citizenry urging towns and organizations to vote for resolutions of opposition.

Pisgah National Forest

Photo courtesy of Randy Johnson

the 80s, clearcutting has become an ever-smaller part of Forest Service timber harvest methods, in part due to protections ushered in by the Endangered Species Act. Ensuing years have seen ongoing reductions in timber harvesting on Forest Service land in general, and a dramatic rise in logging on private land.

The clearcuts of the 1980s beneath the Parkway’s viaduct may now be forgotten, but the viewshed of the Parkway — and the economic importance of scenery in general — has not been. If anything, Appalachian conservationists and tourism promoters consider the protection of mountain scenery more critical than ever.

In 2006, timber cuts were again planned for the Globe, an area of Pisgah National Forest near Blowing Rock, rekindling logging fears and it’s potential negative impact on the Parkway and area tourism.

When new timber cuts were announced, the U.S. Forest Service handled local public input in a fashion that led some to seek permanent guidelines to protect scenery. Conservationists, spearheaded by the grassroots organization Wild South, called for designation of a 25,500-acre area below Grandfather Mountain to be permanently protected as a National Scenic Area.

Despite the passage of resolutions by local and county governments supporting the designation, the movement stalled.

The emphasis then shifted to the opposition of the 2006 timber sale. Research by conservation groups revealed that the sale included “old growth” tracts containing trees up to 300 years old.

By summer 2010, Candice Wyman, then acting public affairs officer for U.S. National Forests in North Carolina, announced a “collaborative process” with conservationists that successfully achieved a “redirection” of the timber sale — including a reduction in logging area acreage from 212 acres to 137. Though no clearcuts were proposed, preservation groups were ecstatic that the Forest Service eliminated “old growth” trees from the harvest and pledged to reduce the visibility of the cuts with in surrounding areas.

New Ethos of Forest Service

Despite the success, the National Scenic Area proposal for the Grandfather District appears unlikely to overcome formidable political hurdles. Nevertheless, with plans for the Globe timber cuts ultimately and amicably amended — with a significant emphasis on serious “restoration” of wildlife habitat — some argue that the event prompted a new ethos of Forest Service management in the Southern Appalachians.

One of these proponents is Gordon Warburton, a supervising wildlife biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. Warburton’s tenure at the Commission began in the early 1980s with the release of the Peregrine falcons on Grandfather Mountain. Since then, he has worked on many other projects including the regeneration of wild turkey populations. “There’s a brand new Forest Service out there,” Warburton says. “The agency had a problem in the 1980s, with legacy logging, and they live with that. We (the Commission) used to ask that they hold back on some of their land disturbance activities. Today, they’re almost solely focused on ecological restoration. Glaring timber cuts have gone away.”

When Warburton hears “the designation ‘national scenic area, it makes me think that very little forestry will be permitted, and that’s not good,” he says. “You need to put on your ‘wildlife glasses’ and see that most of our forests are 80-90 years old, and that’s bad for a lot of wildlife and for the diversity of the forest.”

Even with smaller and fewer timber cuts on national forest land, and growing timber harvests on private land, Warburton says, “that’s not enough. The American Birding Conservancy says that young forests are one of the top twenty most endangered habitats for birds in the Eastern United States.”

“There’s a new kid on the block,” he says, “and it’s a philosophy called ‘ecological restoration’ of habitat — and that takes being able to introduce disturbance.”

Increasingly, conservationists and forest managers share the same priorities, says Ben Prater, associate executive director of Wild South. Prater maintains that national scenic areas have flexible management guidelines and that the original draft of the legislation proposing the Grandfather National Scenic Area explicitly allows for management that benefits wildlife and ecological restoration, including the use of prescribed fire.

Despite the apparent agreement on some basic principles, Prater says, “Restoration is a new philosophical approach, but it has a long way to go. Clear cuts are out, but for the folks who wanted clearcutting — and there are serious pro-timber folks still there — even ecological restoration has been a tough pill to swallow. We’ve changed, the Forest Service is changing, but it has a way to go.”

That’s where the new restoration project in the Grandfather District, announced in February, comes in. There is significant money to be spent on projects that reduce invasive non-native species, increase forest species diversity, treat important stands of hemlocks against the hemlock woolly adelgid, enhance habitat for the rare golden-winged warbler and introduce controlled fire into areas where fire is part of the natural ecosystem and fuel loads are now dangerously high.

Groups joining the Forest Service in that agreement include the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, The Nature Conservancy, Wild South, the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, The Southern Forest Network and the Western North Carolina Alliance, among others.

“This collaboration between the Forest Service and the community is new, and it’s an awesome emergence from controversy to a new age of forestry,” Prater says. “This is a great reflection that the future holds a focus on regenerating ecological diversity and working with local communities.”

“The Forest Service is a resource extraction endeavor, after all,” he says, “but the Obama Administration is funding this effort and it’s a marquee project for our region.”

When Marisue Hilliard recently retired as forest supervisor in North Carolina, she said one of the things she was most pleased with was the eventual end result of the Globe timber sale.

“While the timber sale was controversial at first, I believe it worked out well in the end,” Hilliard said. “The biggest lesson I learned is that you need to take time to work through issues that people feel passionately about. Sometimes you have to slow down to make sure that things are done right.”

No one knows for certain, but perhaps the time will come soon when all groups involved will sing a rousing version of “Kumbaya” together around a campfire. There’s always hope.

Randy Johnson’s articles published in The Mountain Times on the late 1980s clearcutting controversy won first place N.C. Press Association Awards for Investigative Reporting and Community Service. The Wilderness Society said the series “influenced national policy,” and the N.C. Press Association stated that the articles were “clearly of national significance.” Visit www.randyjohnsonbooks.com.

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17 COMMENTS
  1. Interesting article, don’t see any mention that the Grandfather Restorataion Project includes burning the entire Linville Gorge 2- 3 times in the next ten years, was this known at the time of writing? In addition to the Gorge, Wilson Creek and Rose Creek are slated for extensive burns as well. If this occurs this landscape will be irreparably damaged. The supposed science behind this is still in its infancy and is driven by vested parties whose livihoods are invested in prescribed burning, therefore they seek only to justify their business.

  2. The USFS is currently working on the Environmental Assessment for this project. The Draft Environmental Assessment should be ready by Spring 2013. When published a defined 30-day comment period will begin. The Forest Service holds that no party may pursue legal action after the 30-day period had expired unless they have made a substantial comment. The finalized Environmental Assessment decision will be made 30 days after the Environmental Assessment is published.

    The Environmental Assessment will consider three options:

    (1)burn the entire Gorge. (this is the USFS desired treatment)
    (2)burn all but the Gingercake quadrant .Spence Ridge Trail and north.
    (3) take no action in the Gorge. No treatment of invasive species or endangered species would take place.

    Anybody that loves the Linville Gorge and is unclear about the consequences of the planned burn would be well served to go to Dobson Knob. The USFS performed a prescribed burn there I truly doubt your interest in the Gorge will continue if your hikes consist entirely of this type of landscape.

    The USFS will be unsurping the Wilderness Act if they burn the Gorge. The Wilderness Act’s intent is to restrain human influences so that these specially designated environments can change over time in their own way, free from human manipulation. Unfortunately the Wilson Gorge did not gain Wilderness status and may be harder to defend. These prescribed burns are not a replication of nature in this region of high moisture, nor is the proepenisty for fire as the USFS suggests.

    Lonnie Crotts

  3. Lonnie Crotts says:

    National Forests in North Carolina

    U.S. Forest Service

    160A Zillicoa St.

    Asheville, N.C. 28801

    FOREST SERVICE NEWS ALERT

    Sept. 27, 2012

    Grandfather Restoration Project Meeting Set for Oct. 22

    ASHEVILLE, N.C. – The U.S. Forest Service and partners will meet on Oct. 22 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. to discuss the status of the Grandfather Restoration Project. The meeting will be held at the Supervisor’s Office, 160A Zillicoa Street, Asheville, NC, 28801.

    The meeting is open to the public. Seating is limited and will be provided on first-come, first-served basis.

    This is very interesting and very limited in who is being advised. Your attendance will be noticed. A group in opposition of burning the Gorge is planning to attend and will be advising of the needed accomodations in advance. Let me know if you will attend so the USFS can respond accordingly: lcrotts@triad.rr.com

  4. Lonnie Crotts says:

    The Croatan was planned as 1,500 acre burn and resulted in a loss of 21,000 acres. Today the Pliot Mountain “precribed” fire is coming near end. It was planned as a 180 acre burn and estimates expect a loss of 800-1,000 acres. Do we need to destroy more forest to learn from this? The Gorge is one of the few forest environments without heavy human influence. We will not be able to recreate it once its gone.

  5. Lonnie Crotts says:

    There are growing numbers of people that see the prescribed burning of the Linville Gorge Wilderness area as proposed in the 2011 Grandfather Restoration Project as a transgression of the purpose of Wilderness. The 1964 Wilderness Acts states ““In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States…leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” This plan by the USFS recommends burning the entire 12,000 acres of the Linville Gorge Wilderness 2 – 3 times in ten years’ time. This effort will remove the vestiges of Wilderness and the Linville Gorge will become a “managed forest”.

    Aside from trammeling of the intent of the Wilderness Act, “prescribed burning” is not necessarily achieving the stated goals of removing fire load and understory. Dobson Knob on the west ridge of the Linville Gorge was subjected to a prescribed burn on the side of the mountain that does not have the Wilderness designation. While one of the stated objectives is to reduce the propensity for fire and remove laurel and other under story material it was not evident here. This scene 18 months after the burn was full of standing, scorched, dead trees and debris on the ground more fire ready than ever. Not only were there large amounts of more flammable material on the scene, the ground and remaining forest was much drier due to the loss of canopy and ground cover that helps hold moisture on the ground and surrounding area. Anyone that has cut laurel or rhododendron trees to the ground, know that they grow back healthier and more profusely than ever. That was clearly in evidence on Dobson Knob where the rhodendron and mountain laurel trees were killed above ground, however, the roots remained alive.

    Another stated objective is to stop the progression of the non-native Princess tree, however, this is an opportunistic species that takes advantage of burned open ground. In terms of supporting the endangered Heller’s Blazing Star and Hudsonia Montana, these plants only live in the rocky outcrops of upper elevations, not the entire Gorge.

    I object to this popularized notion of prescribed burning for many reasons and believe that we are becoming victims of a school of thought that has become inbred in forestry education and research. This growing industry is being built on burning forests. The industry stakeholders include consultants, equipment manufacturers, forest service specialists, helicopter pilots, grant writers…. and publications such as this “news release” from the experts only perpetuate the inbred nature of prescribed burning and the knowledge that surrounds it.

    Another great public concern is the inability to control these man made fires. As prescribed burning grows rapidly as a forest management tool, so does the risk for public health and welfare. The Croatan fire this year was planned as a 1,500 acre burn and quickly became a 21,000 acre wildfire. State officials told the public at the Pilot Mountain prescribed burn turned wildfire meeting in the Shoal’s community that the burn was planned for 50-60 acres, it became a 700 acre wildfire that threatened homes and health. Colorado’s recent deadly wildfire was most intense in areas that had received previous prescribed burning. This “science” of prescribed burns should be treated by the media with skepticism, instead the USFS “story” or news release gets another endorsement by the media, by simply printing what they are handed. I strongly urge the news media to investigate this issue objectively.

  6. SaveLGW.org was established to represent a growing coalition of citizens that see the U.S. Forest Service’s prescribed burns in the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area as proposed in the Grandfather Restoration Project as a transgression of the purpose of Wilderness.

  7. Ron Snow says:

    Mr. Crotts and his wife know more about prescribed fire than a nation of ecologists and will be happy to tell you on the comment boards of any media outlet. Let me guess, you own a home near Linville Gorge and you like your view the way it is? Please provide citations to scholarly research to back up your assertions on the detriment that prescribed fire is to the natural environment.

  8. Ron, you are in the prescribed burning business and understand your interest.

    The above postings are facts that are easily corroborated.

    The real premise is that this is designated Wilderness. In addition to ignoring the 1964 Wilderness act check these out:

    https://panthertown.org/2012/09/06/nantahala-national-forest-future-prescribed-burns/#comments

    https://www.conservationmagazine.org/2008/07/prescribed-burning-do-we-really-know-what-were-doing/

    https://www.wilderness.net/toolboxes/documents/fire/Prescribed%20Fires%20in%20Wilderness%20-%20case%20study.pdf

    https://www.gafw.org/fire.html

    Progressive research is and will continue to move away from the fadish and dangerious wide spread use of prescribed burning. The Croatan prescribed burn intended for 1,500 acres becoming 21,000 acres. It doesn’t take an academic to understand that there is a lot more at stake.

    You could engage common sense regarding the above listed facts.

    I am not sure what you know about the Gorge, I do know if you are up to date on the use of prescribed burning you will also know that results are very specific to the immediate locale, therefore must be addressed to that locale. Prescribed burn does not necessarily reduce fire risks, remove invasive species, improve specific species growth.

    Some folks met with key USFS & partnering agencies people last week. They met at the Dobson Knob prescribed burn. One of the acknowledgements from the experts was that Dobson is more flammable in it’s current state. So, if they burn the Gorge in sections leaving one and starting another in rotation over the entire 12,000 acres over the next 3 – 5 years they are knowledgeable setting up a tenderbox. Another risk is that they run out of money and don’t finish the job, leaving the whole mess standing with a certainty of a catastrophic wildfire.

    In the recent Pilot Mountain prescribed burn that went out of control the NC Forest Service spokesperson Charlie Peek stated that grades of 20 – 40% cannot be controlled. The Linville Gorge is minimally a 20 – 40-% grade throughout. Should I cite this article also?

  9. Sara Vicente says:

    There is a mounting stack of evidence against the use of prescribed fire in the type of terrain and ecosystem as Linville Gorge. Both the University of Montana and the University of Arizona published recent studies. Colorado’s Governor has placed a ban on prescribed fire covering all areas within that jurisdiction due to the catastrophic losses there. Prescribed burns have also gone out of control in Florida burning wetlands thought to be easy to control.
    The Save the Linville Gorge Wilderness has a petition which is rapidly accumulating signatures to block further trampling of the Wilderness act.
    https://www.change.org/petitions/stop-u-s-forest-service-proposal-to-burn-the-linville-gorge-wilderness-response-to-scoping-letter-file-code-1950?utm_campaign=share_button_mobile&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=share_petition&utm_term=35755653
    This place is the last refuge for our wildlife including black bear can feed on an abundance of wild berries.The recently recovering Peregrine Falcon and Bald Eagle are nesting here as well.
    The more I read on this subject and dig into what groups are supporting it, the more I find disturbing about it. 100 years ago we stopped the clearcutting of wilderness by law and now it looks like we are heading right back in to the use of wildlands for commercial purposes. Can’t the Federal Gov’t leave a little bit of the Southern Appalachians alone?

  10. Dear Friends:
    Wilderness Watch has been true to their mission to protect wilderness. This is an informative, well written article in defense of the Linville Gorge Wilderness published this December in the the Guardian, a monthly email to members: https://hosted.verticalresponse.com/386029/8eca3bf5cd/TEST/TEST/%7BVR_F2AF_LINK%7D.

    Your friend in protecting the Gorge,
    https://www.SaveLGW.org

  11. This 2012 US Forest Service research: https://www.na.fs.fed.us/fire/cwedocs/ch7_fuels_mgmt_southern_appalachian.pdf makes it clear that the science behind prescribed burns in the southeastern forests is underdeveloped and definitely risking the Gorge. If citing this article it is recommended to include this page at the US Forest Service Research Station website: https://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/41020 as a cover page for details on date, author, additional citation.

    Your friend in the Gorge,
    Lonnie Crotts

  12. Protest the U.S. Forest Service Burn Plan

    Saturday, April 20th, 2:00 PM

    U.S. Forest Service
    Supervisor’s Office
    160 Zillicoa St. Suite A
    Asheville, NC 28801

    Join us for merriment and a serious message to stop the U.S. Forest Service from burning the Linville Gorge Wilderness. Sparky the Bear, Friends of Linville Gorge, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, and others will be there!

  13. Wilderness Watch’s most recent publication of the Guardian covers the U.S. Forest Service proposed burning of the Linville Gorge on their front page:

    https://wildernesswatch.org/pdf/newsletters/Spring2013.pdf

    Their mission is altruistic, and provides true Wilderness stewardship in the spirit of the 1964 Wilderness Act.

  14. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is the biggest of the forest burners that call themselves a conservation agency. TNC receives money for burning forests from the USFS and is the richest of all the green groups (green in who standards?) —has at least $22.8 million invested in the energy sector, according to its 2012 financial statements.

    A small sample: in 2010, The Washington Post reported that TNC “has accepted nearly $10 million in cash and land contributions from BP and affiliated corporations”; it counts BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell among the members of its Business Council; Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, one of the largest US coal-burning utilities, sits on its board of directors; and it runs various conservation projects claiming to “offset” the carbon emissions of oil, gas and coal companies.

    https://www.thenation.com/article/174143/time-big-green-go-fossil-free#

  15. New published research from a number of scientists is finding that the promised benefits of “prescribed” burning do not exist.

    The NY Times published an article this year “Forest Fire Research Questions the Wisdom of Prescribed Burns” in which fire ecology scientists are finding that the nature of prescribed burns with their low-intensity fires are much less common than purported, don’t support biological diversity or natural processes , and do not prevent more severe fires. This is the opposite of what the USFS has been telling the public in regard to their interest to burn the Gorge. In this article Dr. William L. Baker concluded that big fires are inevitable, and argues that it is best for ecosystems — and less expensive — to put up with them. “Our research shows that reducing fuels isn’t going to reduce severity much,” he said. “Even if you reduce fuels, you are still going to have severe fires” because of extreme weather. In other words; when there is drought (drought is the catalyst for catastrophic fire) prescribed burn will make little to no difference. This research essentially debunks any benefits of prescribed burning. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/18/science/earth/forest-survey-questions-effect-of-prescribed-burns.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&

    Another indication of a turning tide is the statement from a US Forest Service Fire Manager found in “It Always Burned Big”, an article published by The Missoulian this year. Orville Daniels, Fire Manager for the US Forest Service discusses the role of fire in the wilderness “The prime purpose of wilderness is to show us what nature does when man doesn’t interfere,” Daniels said. “It’s a place to let natural forces play out, so we can learn the role of fire on the landscape. With global climate change, these places are more valuable than ever.” https://missoulian.com/news/local/years-ago-canyon-creek-blaze-in-bob-changed-fire-knowledge/article_2d609470-0092-11e3-ace4-001a4bcf887a.html.

    The next challenge for those that want to keep the Gorge wild is to prevent the USFS from writing the use of “prescribed” burning into the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest 15-year Forest Plan. The plan is now under development and public comment. In the current plan the USFS is not allowed to set fires in the Gorge for any purpose other than back burns. This means that the special permission is currently needed from the USFS Regional Supervisor in Atlanta to use “prescribed” burns for other purposes. This prevented any quick action that might avoid public response, and is the minimum of what we should expect.

  16. The 15 Year Forest Management Plan Update is a current issue that will have a strong impact on how burning practices of the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area go in the future.

    1) Why comment on the Forest Plan?

    Burning in wilderness areas will be permitted for reasons to be specified in the pending 15 year forest plan update. This can create a means for the Forest Service to authorize burning the wilderness without having to involve the public. It is MORE important than ever to comment on the Forest Plan now.

    The Draft Plan, a 200 plus page document has been released in the last few days this is a link to that document: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5436795.pdf . It loads very slowly and contains no specifics on burning the Gorge only repeats the general propaganda on the wonders of “prescribed” burning for all forests. An all day workshop is being held on Saturday, October 5th https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/nfsnc/home/?cid=stelprdb5397660 in Asheville at the Arboretum for the public to give feedback on what is needed in the plan. Information regarding that upcoming meeting is attached.

    2) More information on how to comment on Nantahala Pisgah 15 year Forest Plan Update

    Every 10-15 years, each Forest Service district prepares a plan to be used as a guide in managing the national forests under their care in the future. The Grandfather District plan now in effect states that the Forest Service will not do prescribed burning in National Wilderness Areas. The agency is now preparing a new plan for the district. They are required to involve the public, and are seeking public comment now Those of you concerned about the Gorge, and we all should be, should submit comments. Information regarding the development of the plans, including public meetings and the procedure for commenting can be found at https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/nfsnc/home/?cid=STELPRDB5397660.

    Comments or questions about the Plan revision or process can be sent by email to:
    NCplanrevision@fs.fed.us

    Please submit comments to the Forest Service , if you are so inclined, relative to the 15 year plan currently being developed by using the method outlined in item 2).

  17. Save Linville Gorge Wilderness just launched a new petition to make it easier to comment on the the Updated 15-Year Pisgah-Nanatahala Forest Management Plan: https://www.change.org/petitions/stop-the-burning-of-linville-gorge-wilderness .

    This petition is a vehicle to notify the USFS that you want to keep the wilderness wild and that you oppose man-initiated burning of the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area, which violates the 1964 Wilderness Act and stands to forever change this rare sanctuary of nature.

    One benefit of going the route of the petition is that your comments are emailed directly to the USFS, and are visible on the petition site and are also copied to SaveLGW.org for our assurance of delivery.

    Please sign and share with your friends, family and others that want to keep wilderness wild.

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