The Green Scene: As the Globe turns

It’s been some time in coming, but recent reports indicate that the USDA Forest Service will soon reach an accord with stakeholders regarding the Globe timber sale, a 200-acre project proposed back in 2006 near Blowing Rock. Local environmental groups quietly applauded the news, particularly since one soon-to-be-approved change in the plans would preserve an area with trees up to 300 years old.

“At least one cutting unit was dropped during the collaborative process,” reports Candice Wyman, acting public affairs officer with the National Forests in North Carolina. “The details are still being developed, but the process is under way to produce a result that most parties will be happy with.”

In 2009, the Southern Environmental Law Center listed the Globe Forest among its Top 10 Endangered Areas in the South, saying the project would imperil mountain vistas and some increasingly rare stands of old-growth forest. Environmental groups including the SELC and the Western North Carolina Alliance conducted field studies and documented the presence of trees ranging from 130 to more than 300 years old.

The negotiations, now in their final stage, are expected to bring additional changes, such as new stream protections, fewer roads and reduced visibility from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The sale has been vigorously opposed. Of some 1,800 comments received by the Forest Service early in the process, only four supported going forward. The town of Blowing Rock has actively opposed it from the beginning, because logged areas would be plainly visible. The activist group EarthFirst! has staged numerous protests at Forest Service Headquarters while offering bulletins and camp-style training to activists seeking to halt the project altogether.

Then, on May 10, someone mailed an apparent warning to at least a dozen local timber operators, in the form of a postcard showing perhaps 25 people, faces covered, sitting atop an overturned vehicle and holding a banner proclaiming “No compromise on native forests — Earth First!”

“Compromise” may refer to the stakeholder negotiations that began in 2008 after the SELC threatened a lawsuit in the wake of a failed appeal to protect the area’s old growth, high-quality streams and rare species. “We’re on the cusp of a collaborative solution with the Forest Service on the project,” says SELC attorney D.J. Gerken.

Sources say the Globe will reportedly be combined with another timber offering and presented as a “stewardship sale,” an administrative label that relaxes some of the economic constraints imposed by the agency’s timber program, according to Chris Joyell of the group Wild South. “Repackaging the Globe as a stewardship sale is reverse engineering to absorb the economic loss that comes with sparing 300-year-old trees,” he says. “It’s a big development for us.”

The Globe tracts lie within an area proposed for permanent protection as the Grandfather National Scenic Area — “a huge swath of intact forest, 25,000 acres that lies between Grandfather Mountain and Blowing Rock,” Joyell explains. Unfragmented forest areas this size are rare, especially in the eastern U.S.

“It’s good news to us,” says Bob Gale of the WNC Alliance, “although it’s still in negotiations. … There is one stand in particular that we believe is taken off the table. The Forest Service doesn’t want another black eye — they want to remove the old growth from the project and still have a profitable sale.” Xpress reported in March that the agency had expected to turn a $100,000 profit; it’s not clear whether that would still be true if big, valuable trees were left standing.

Long-term environmental watchdogs say this may be part of a long, slow evolution toward a greener, gentler agency that might place ecological restoration on a par with timber production.

“Cutting 300-year-old trees in this day and age is unconscionable,” Gale declares. “There’s invaluable genetic material contained within a group of trees that old.” The offspring of these survivors, he says, will tend to produce a forest better able to resist diseases and pests.

“Restoration is our priority — whether it’s through selective harvest or prescribed burning or conserving unique forest stands,” notes Wyman of the Forest Service. “If stands meet old-growth criteria, we will exclude them [from logging projects].”

Others remain skeptical. “While there are those who call for restoration, there are still folks in the Forest Service who would like to do some re-branding of their old skill set and call it restoration,” says WildLaw biologist Josh Kelly.

Joyell agrees. “There’s a 100-year-old culture that still exists at the Forest Service. If they tell us tomorrow that they’re not going to build another road next to a creek, I’ll know that ecological restoration is truly at the top of their agenda.”

Susan Andrew can be reached at at 251-1333, ext. 153, or sandrew@mountainx.com.

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