Asheville City Council

The author of a plan that calls for some logging in Asheville’s drinking-water watersheds took questions from City Council, but his answers did little to placate those opposed to the plan.

A crowd of logging opponents that spilled out into the hallway was on hand as forester Edward Hicks outlined his forest-management plan for the North Fork and Bee Tree watersheds at City Council’s July 20 work session. And the forester’s inability to answer a string of questions posed by various Council members (he repeatedly responded by saying “I don’t know”) left environmentalists baffled.

“I found it really depressing what little planning had been done,” said Monroe Gilmour, coordinator of the Swannanoa Valley Alliance for Beauty and Prosperity (a grassroots group). The city, argued Gilmour, should be consulting with biologists and botanists, not a forester, on such issues.

The city hired Hicks’ forest-management firm, Wildwood Consulting, in 2002 to examine the watersheds at the request of the Black Mountain and Asheville fire departments. Earlier that year, a plane had crashed in one of the watersheds, and rescue teams were hampered by fallen trees that blocked the roadways.

Interim Water Resources Director David Hanks said Hicks had been instructed first to preserve water quality and second to consider ways to provide better emergency access to the property.

“Those were his marching orders — just give us an overview,” Hanks told Council. No one seemed concerned about Hicks’ proposals for clearing and maintaining roads. But the idea of logging portions of the watersheds proved highly controversial.

Those opponents may have the law on their side; the proposed cuts could violate a conservation easement that prohibits logging at elevations over 3,600 feet and allows only very selective harvesting at lower elevations.

“It would rule out some of the clear-cut activities [Hicks] was talking about. The easement is fairly restrictive,” said Rusty Painter of the Conservation Trust for North Carolina. But the easement would allow most of the proposed activities, such as grass thinning and clearing roadways, he added.

And although Painter told Council that he would be willing to discuss amending some of the language in the easement, he later told Xpress, “We would never back off of the conservation issues in an easement.”

Hicks has maintained that the clear-cuts, which his report says would vary in size from 0.5 acre to 10 acres, are needed to foster wildlife and encourage oak regeneration,

To justify cutting trees, which Hicks has said could help finance the other parts of his plan, he argued that proliferating maple trees are “slowly and inexorably” overpowering oak populations in the watersheds.

“What we want to do is make sure oak trees stay in the forest,” Hicks told Council.

But Council member Brownie Newman challenged that prediction, pointing out that the watershed is predominantly south-facing, an environment that tends to encourage oak populations.

Feeling the heat

Hicks has repeatedly warned about the threat of fire in the watershed because of an abundance of invasive grasses, particularly miscanthus (aka Chinese silver grass). A lightning strike (or even human activity), argues Hicks, could ignite the swift-burning grass and devastate the forest.

“Right now, this constitutes a very minor problem. But down the road, if lightning strikes, you’re going to have a problem,” Hicks said.

To eliminate the grass, Hicks has suggested using herbicides, telling Council members, “You have a narrow opportunity to do something about it.”

Opponents, however, have downplayed the risk of fire and even challenged Hicks’ contention that the grass can grow underneath the forest canopy (which would create the potential for more severe damage if there were a fire). Environmental experts say this is flat-out false.

“Miscanthus is not classified as shade-tolerant,” ecologist Bob Gale of the WNC Alliance told Xpress. “It will grow on the edges of shade, but it will not grow under the canopy.”

Nonetheless, the fire scare has already sparked concern on the part of some Council members.

“Are we rolling the dice with Mother Nature?” asked Council member Joe Dunn. “If you ignore an issue, something’s going to happen. We’re bound and determined to have a fire up there, from lightning or whatever.

“They seemed very set on moving this thing through very quickly. Why the urgent speed on this proposal?” asked Gale in a later conversation with Xpress. “The city seems intent on approving a plan that is very loose.”

Ruffled feathers

Opponents are also suspicious of another part of Hicks’ plan, which calls for thinning trees to admit more sunlight and provide habitat for the ruffed grouse. Although there are healthy populations elsewhere in the region, the bird is not abundant in the thickly forested watershed.

“We would like to have a grouse population out there,” noted Hicks.

But Hicks did not explain why this is desirable, and the goals outlined by the city make no mention of fostering a specific wildlife species.

“Why is the city getting into the business of creating wildlife habitats?” wondered Gale. “Nobody asked them to go in and figure out a way to created a ruffed-grouse habitat.”

Council members clashed briefly over what to do next. Newman and Council member Holly Jones urged caution; “We need to make this decision based on good science,” said Newman. But Dunn and Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower favored moving forward.

“We gotta get a plan; we gotta get some answers. We gotta start somewhere,” argued Dunn.

Mayor Charles Worley reminded his colleagues that they would have a chance to revisit the issue when it came time for Council to vote on specific policy decisions in the future.

But his words brought little comfort to an obviously frustrated Gilmour, who fumed, “It is embarrassing the way they are approaching this.”

And despite many unanswered questions, a public hearing on the matter was scheduled for the July 27 formal session, after which Council could decide to vote on the plan.

Leaving a mark

The Downtown Social Issues Task Force, a group of citizens charged with brainstorming ideas to combat such problems as drug use and homelessness, presented recommendations for fighting a lesser evil: graffiti. But their plan, which has drawn critics’ ire in the past, met with resistance on Council as well.

“Graffiti is a form of expression — that is part of the problem we are wrangling with,” said task force spokesperson Kim MacQueen. Some people who spoke at recent public meetings on the recommendations, she noted, defended graffiti as a form of free speech.

But the practice, she argued, has a tangible negative impact on the downtown business district. MacQueen cited statistics from the National Council of Realtors showing that graffiti lowers property values by up to 15 percent.

The key to prevention, she said, lies in quick removal of graffiti — within 48 hours.

But some Council members balked at the task force’s call for fining business owners who don’t remove the graffiti within 48 hours — or give permission for a volunteer group to do so at no cost to the business.

“I feel personally that this goes too far,” said Vice Mayor Mumpower. “It basically punishes the victims.”

The suggested fine for failing to clean up graffiti is $25 a day, but that fine could be avoided by registering with a volunteer cleanup crew organized through Quality Forward, a local nonprofit.

Mumpower remained firmly skeptical about that idea, saying, “I doubt very seriously you can make it work.”

A two-member team of graffiti volunteers is already in place, Leslie Huntley of Quality Forward told Xpress. “I do think that would be a challenge, but this committee came about because of community interest,” she said, adding that she’s confident there are enough people willing to volunteer for such a service.

Council member Jan Davis supported the idea of quick removal, but he, too, took a dim view of fining business and property owners.

“I have a real problem placing the burden on the victim,” he said.

In some cases, said Davis, it could take more than 48 hours to restore the property to the owner’s satisfaction; he also raised questions about liability concerns if a volunteer were injured.

Other task force suggestions include increased police presence, asking the district attorney to prosecute offenders, and perhaps creating a legal place for graffiti art. The group also addressed the proliferation of fliers on downtown telephone poles, suggesting that the city install more kiosks like the one outside Pack Library.

Council will hear public comment and vote on the issue at its July 27 formal session.

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