Every autumn, people from around the country wheel into Western North Carolina for a chance to witness our forests explode into color. They want to see the blush of our fire maples, the yellows of our poplars, the purple of our sweetgums. And fall-watching is but one way that people — native and tourist alike — recreate in our tree-rich outdoors. We hike and we camp; we zipline and we recline. We explore.
The woods of WNC are, without doubt, a splendor, a treasure and a boon. But someone has to ensure that these woods remain great. Enter the Forest Keepers — a volunteer-based organization started by Asheville-based nonprofit Western North Carolina Alliance. The new program blends science with stewardship.
Recently, Mountain Xpress sat down with the leader of this initiative — AmeriCorps Forest Keeper Alexandra Guest — to discuss how the group will lend Mother Nature a helping hand.
Mountain Xpress: Can you give us an overview of what the Forest Keeper program is and what it seeks to achieve?
Alexandra Guest: Part of WNCA’s tagline is protecting mountains, forests and rivers — so the forest keepers are part of that forest component. Essentially, the Forest Keepers program is founded on this issue where there’s a lot of public land in [the region] and not a lot of government funding for that land. With a lot of space to play outside and recreate comes a lot of people who like to enjoy doing those things. The Forest Keepers program is a volunteer-based group that appeals to people who are outdoor enthusiasts — hikers and mountain bikers and climbers and sort of all-around whatever you like to do outside. We’re hoping that people, in addition to recreating outside, will also be able to give back to the public lands that are around them by protecting them from invasive species, maintaining trails and being the frontline defense for different pests and pathogens.
Yesterday, for instance, I was at an event for hemlock adelgid – which is attacking hemlocks all over the East. There’s also an ash-bore beetle [too]. It’s not yet in North Carolina, but it is in Tennessee, so the Forest Keepers would be able to find out about all those things that are happening and be a part of being the first responders, as it were. The [U.S.] Forest Service just can’t be in all places at all times.
When did the forest keepers program start?
I just came in this September, but there were a few events in 2012 and a few events in 2013. Now my role is to keep the program having traction and momentum. We’re running monthly events – our first one was [Oct. 19] – and then hopefully we’ll be able to have ongoing projects all year so that people will be able to participate. If you can’t make a scheduled event, then maybe you can have your hand in some other project. Right now we’re collaborating with the U.S. Forest Service on a wildlife project in the Grandfather District, where we’re interested in seeing where wildlife are after a prescribed-burn event, within that [section] of the Pisgah National Forest. I’ve got five volunteers looking through pictures of wildlife through trail cameras; we’ve gone through more than 10,000 photos together.
The program is based on the initiatives of WNCA. Although we’ve done a lot of work collaborating with other organizations in the area, the Forest Keepers program is an Alliance-exclusive. Anybody can be part of it, but its energy is coming from WNCA.
What makes the program important?
My supervisor, Josh (Kelly), and Bob Gale have stepped in and been able to work in tandem with the U.S. Forest Service quite a lot. And so we have a really good collaboration there. The forest keepers is sort of extra eyes and ears – for the Alliance, for the U.S. Forest Service and for Western North Carolina in general. It doesn’t really matter who is the eyes and ears, but it is really important that someone is out there to make sure that our forests are intact the way we think and hope they are – and that someone can think and act when they’re not.
What is your No. 1 goal for the program in WNC?
I think it’s finding this balance between environmental stewardship and environmental science: The forest keepers begin at that intersection. The overarching goal is to ensure that we have ways that appeal to people’s recreational and also to their intellectual interests. There’s a lot of space between those, and that’s a really big opportunity for us to work within. The other thing is that if there’s a lot of people who have environmental science degrees or who went to college with environmental science as a field they could study, there’s still a lot of room that the forest keepers can explore. So our work days aren’t just work days – they’re also discussion days and dialogue days where people can ask questions and toss out curiosities. I think education is a major goal, but in the context of education happening outside. And education for people who are newly outdoors as well as for people who have been hanging outside since they were young.
Are there any areas in particular that you are targeting in WNC?
Last week we were in Linville Gorge because of the [November 2013] Table Rock wildfire. There was a huge outbreak of princess trees – which are a really invasive tree species. We also have this collaboration with the Grandfather Wildlife District on wildlife data. However, we’re trying to meet people where they are, so not all of our events will always be that far away.
In the future, we’re going to keep in mind that a lot of our interested volunteers live in Asheville, so hopefully we’ll be able to find some projects that are still remote, but not as far. We’re not focused in Buncombe County, but we are aware that our sphere of influence is Asheville-based.
I don’t think we weigh some public lands over other public lands at all. I think what we’re really targeting is projects we can get volunteers engaged with, so one thing we want to put into this program is sort of a three-piece model where volunteers can first go out and take note of an existing environmental ill. The next step will be collecting data, so that we can qualitatively and quantitatively think about how those environmental ills are happening and what action can be taken to mitigate their effects. And then the third part will be to take that action. Those things don’t necessarily have to happen linearly.
I think what’s most satisfying is to see something overarching – which is something that we’re really targeting and trying to do some research on to find some important work that volunteers can wrap their hands and heads around.
What are some of your upcoming events?
We are having this [Saturday, Nov. 8] orienteering/off-trail training field seminar where people can come out with Josh and me, and we’ll talk about navigating with maps and compasses. It will be in the Craggy Mountains, so we’ll be doing a 6-mile hike as well. Most of the hike will be on-trail, but it will have an off-trail component. We’ll be consulting back with our maps and compasses and working as a group to make sure we know where we are.
Part of that event is also a winter tree identification class — so if there’s no leaves, it’s no problem. You can still use the bark and the bark litter on the ground below the leaf. Josh is a pretty good WNC tree savant, so I’m excited to work with him.
In December, we’re probably going to be planting hemlock trees to mitigate the effect of hemlock wooly adelgid – a pest that’s attacking [the] trees. I just talked to some people who work at the U.S. Forest Service, and they have some hemlock saplings that need homes. So we’re going to get some shovels on the ground, and it seems like a perfect project for the forest keepers.
In January or February, Josh and I will again be leading a field seminar about fire ecology. Fire is natural to the Southeast and has been suppressed now for decades — which has affected the fire-dependent and the fire-adaptive species that depend on it. So we’re going to talk about who it matters to and what prescribed burning means. Besides the community tossing around these ideas about fire ecology, Smoky the Bear has really gotten into everybody’s head. So, fire is seen as this thing that is bad, but it’s more complicated than that. We’re going to inform people about why fire is important and explain that we’re not going to take down the Southeast.
The Forest Keepers program is open to anybody and everybody. We’re trying to have a lot of no-experience-necessary events, and obviously we want to appeal to people who already know they like going outside. So it’s a little bit of both, but there’s a description of each event on all of our advertisements – whether it’s a beginner or intermediate or strenuous hike. We want to make sure that people know what they’re getting themselves into. But we are focusing particularly on having beginner events, so that people can learn with us.
On Nov. 8, WNCA’s hosted an orienteering seminar as well as a winter tree identification class in the Craggy Mountains. The day’s events included a 6-mile hike.