By the bark: Josh Kelly looks to the future of WNC’s forests

IN THE TREES: "My role [is] to try to steer the [U.S.] Forest Service toward ecological restoration as the way to meet its multiple-use mandate — which includes providing timber, clean water and recreation, among other things. Photo by Pat Barcas
IN THE TREES: "My role [is] to try to steer the [U.S.] Forest Service toward ecological restoration as the way to meet its multiple-use mandate — which includes providing timber, clean water and recreation, among other things. Photo by Pat Barcas

What’s the future of Western North Carolina’s public woodlands, particularly the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests? Public lands biologist Josh Kelly has worked with the Asheville-based nonprofit, WNC Alliance, since 2011, helping determine the answer. And with the U.S. Forest Service updating its plans for Pisgah and Nantahala for the first time in 20 years, the issue is especially timely.

As regional news nonprofit Carolina Public Press has reported in its “Forest Lookout” series, the Forest Service has hosted several public meetings and is taking public comment on a draft plan through the end of the year.

Xpress talked with Kelly about the plan, his background and passion for forests, and what’s next. From playing in the creeks of Madison County to learning from his father how to identify trees by their bark, the biologist has been dedicated to preserving the natural environment.

Mountain Xpress: What’s your role with the WNCA, which has merged with two other regional environmental groups and will be taking on a new name — MountainTrue — in January?

Josh Kelly: I’ve been with WNCA since July 2011, and my role here is public lands biologist. Basically, I promote site-specific, beneficial, ecological restoration to the U.S. Forest Service. I also provide site-specific information on other management activities that the Forest Service might propose — such as logging or road-building that might threaten some important natural areas.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to work for the nonprofit?

National forests were the backdrop of my life. I’m from the Spring Creek area of Madison County, and I was aware of WNCA from the time I was 13. I actually volunteered for WNCA back when they had what they called “stream teams.” The part of the work I was most interested in was electro-shocking to count fish — to make sure streams were healthy and had vibrant fish populations. That was right up my alley, because I loved to play in the creek.

When my dad moved to Madison County, he became good friends with a logger named J.B. Ramsey, and J.B. talked him into getting a sawmill and taught him the trade of being a logger. So my dad actually cut the trees on our land, built our house, did the homesteading thing and had a home sawmill. Part of that craft is being able to identify trees — to know which trees that you want to use for a certain function.

For instance, a lot of the siding that dad cut was out of hemlock, because [it’s] rot-resistant. Oak, on the other hand, worked as a particularly strong timber. Poplar had its own uses. Dad picked up on that stuff, and he was one of several people who taught me how to identify trees from a pretty young age. So I always had sort of a logger’s method of identifying trees, which is with the bark — because you can identify a tree by its bark in all seasons. And then, of course, I got into botany in college, and that really increased my ability to connect with and identify plants and trees.

I went to school for biology at UNC Asheville, focused on plant biology there and had some excellent research opportunities as an undergraduate. I was able to participate in two research trips to Guyana in South America and study their plant-life biodiversity.

(Photo by Pat Barcas)
Photo by Pat Barcas

After college, I got a part-time job with the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition documenting old-growth forests — the remnant patches of old-growth forests in the most inaccessible parts of WNC. I worked at that job part time for four years and also worked in wilderness therapy and carpentry — along with whatever other occupations I could cobble together.

In 2007, I was offered a position with an organization called Wild Law … a tandem environmental law firm and environmental advocacy nonprofit, and they brought me on to provide biological expertise. They were orienting much more toward policy — rather than legal activity — and they wanted me to help influence the direction of [U.S.] Forest Service management. Basically, my role was to try to steer the Forest Service toward ecological restoration as the way to meet its multiple-use mandate — which includes providing timber, clean water and recreation, among other things.

I’ve always had a love of forests and a love of exploring the local forest, and I like to know what I’m looking at. So if there’s ever something I’m looking at and I don’t know what it is, I try my best to figure it out. That’s how I came to be where I am.

Can you summarize the nonprofit’s stance on the U.S. Forest Service’s proposed plan for the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests?

Our take is that we’re more concerned about the location than we are about the amount of logging that is likely to happen in the forests. With the boundaries drawn the way they are in this draft proposal — with the 700,000 acres laid out there and with very few of the special areas we have nominated for protection with the Forest Service being recognized — I think it sets us up for conflict in the future. If those areas aren’t recognized, someone is going to want to log there eventually. And then we’ll be back where we’ve been for the past 20, 30 years — fighting over individual timber sales. …

That model is counterproductive, and we need to move past it. As an example, the North Carolina National Heritage program has identified more than 100 special natural areas in the forest and has asked the Forest Service to evaluate those areas. Yet the program was told [by the Forest Service], “We don’t have to, so we probably won’t. The planning rule doesn’t require us to look at that, so we probably won’t.”

A similar situation has occurred with wilderness inventory — the planning rule requires the Forest Service to go through some particular steps to identify potential Wilderness Areas. We saw the agency’s reluctance to go through that process and follow their own rules. We’ve seen those areas be assigned to emphasize logging without even the completion of the wilderness inventory. And we think [that’s] going to set folks who care about wild areas up for conflict with the Forest Service, when that’s really needless.

There’s plenty the Forest Service can do outside of those special areas. There’s half a million acres of forest that don’t qualify as those special areas. The fact that they’re trying to up the ante to 700,000 acres is very troubling.

Would Bluff Mountain be an example of one of those “special areas?”

It would be. Bluff Mountain should fall into the backcountry or potential wilderness area category. It’s a very large, untrammeled area with very wild and natural characteristics. And of course, it’s a place that the local community loves and has fought over in the past — no need to have that fight again.

One of the most heated debates in the Forest Plan seems to be an argument over whether to promote wildlife habitats or to protect old-growth areas of the forest. What’s your take on that conundrum?

WNCA is for all wildlife, and I think that that debate is a false dichotomy. There’s so little old growth out there that the Forest Service — and anybody else really — has no business cutting it on public land. That’s part of the public land that meets other benefits, besides logging and besides young forest wildlife habitat.

When people talk about wildlife, they tend to think of just the young forest species, but there are hundreds of species of wildlife, and not all of them like young forests. That being said, there is also a real need for young forest habitat. So one of the great challenges of the Forest Plan will be to identify those places where we’re going to be creating young forest habitats without infringing on the old-growth forest or on the backcountry areas.

If you look at the 10-year running average on how much timber has been cut on Forest Service land, it’s somewhere around 600 acres per year. The Forest Service has recently been selling a little bit more timber, so maybe that average will increase, but really there’s a lot of room to increase the amount of timber harvest you’re talking about. Even if it went up to 2,000 acres annually, that would still leave 800,000 acres that was never touched in the next 100 years. It would seem to me that there would be plenty of room.

What about prescribed burns?

We have been supportive of prescribed burns recently. In our earlier history, WNCA was opposed to prescribed burns. But as more and more scientific information has come out about the role of fire, it has become clear to our public lands staff that fire does have a beneficial role to play. Humans have been putting out fires for a long time around here, and that’s really changed the ecology of our area.

What direction do you hope to see the nonprofit’s forest component take in the future?

Our primary goals are to continue to be a voice for natural forests and to increase the connection between those forests and healthy communities. We also seek to foster greater citizen engagement in our public land management.

What are some of the nonprofit’s overarching objectives?

We have several program areas. We have our public lands/forest program area; we have our water program area — the goal of which is to improve water quality in the French Broad River Basin and beyond; we also work quite a bit on energy issues, because we think energy affects all the other areas we work in. We have a land-use program that not only promotes, but also helps to accomplish smart growth in communities and assist communities in planning for the future. We have a civic engagement program that involves making sure that people are voting, and hopefully voting on behalf of the environment. Making sure that environmental leaders are getting onto local boards and commissions — a leadership pipeline program — is crucial.

WNCA (MountainTrue) hosts monthly events, including Forest Keeper outings and Asheville Green Drinks discussions. For more information, click here.

For more, Xpress has an interview of the nonprofit’s Forest Keeper, Alex Guest, and Carolina Public Press’ “Forest Lookout” series can be found at carolinapublicpress.org.

For more on the U.S. Forest Service’s draft Forest Plan, visit the agency website at http://avl.mx/0co.

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About Erik Peake
Writing is my craft, my passion, my solace - and my livelihood. As a professional writer, I have worked in an array of venues and filled a variety of roles. Since I moved to Asheville, NC, I have enjoyed a freelance career as a grant writer, a technical writer, a Web-content writer, a copy editor, and an English tutor. I am currently specializing in web-content writing, blogging, and tutoring. Although an obsessive-compulsive nature inclines me toward proselytizing on behalf of English grammar, I also pursue forays into creative writing (as a balance, I suppose). Creative non-fiction is a field of particular interest to me, and I hope someday to publish a collection of short stories that circumnavigates the vicissitudes of my unorthodox youth.

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