“When I first bought this property in 1979, I didn’t plan to ever cut one single tree,” says Gary McCurry, who owns Fox Gap Farms in Morganton. These days, McCurry’s commitment to caring for the 110-acre forested tract is as strong as ever, but he’s learned along the way that conservation and responsible use aren’t necessarily opposed.
Several years ago, McCurry discovered a heavy pine beetle infestation on 13 acres of his property. Eliminating the pests meant removing trees, so he and his son decided to turn the cleared area into an organic apple orchard. The farm sold its first crop this year. “We’re one of only three certified organic apple growers in the state,” McCurry says proudly.
Fox Gap also has blueberry bushes, honey-producing beehives and several historic log structures that McCurry installed on the property. Following N.C. Forest Service recommendations, he uses controlled burns to reduce underbrush and encourage tree regeneration in the wooded areas. Down the line, McCurry does envision selling some timber but says the selective harvest will be done with an eye toward improving forest health and protecting water quality.
Collectively, small private landowners hold over half of all forest lands in Western North Carolina. But this vital constituency has been underserved, according to forest product companies, the U.S. Forest Service and environmental nonprofits. Encouraging these landowners to practice sustainable forest management, experts say, is critically important to addressing the effects of climate change, combating invasive species and pests, and preserving biological diversity.
The new land barons
When we think about such issues, we tend to focus on large, publicly owned tracts like the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests, which together comprise more than 1 million acres. In fact, however, 86 percent of forest lands in the South are privately held, according to a 2011 U.S. Forest Service report, and individuals and families own two-thirds of those.
Corporations like Champion Paper in Canton, now part of Evergreen Packaging, once owned significant acreage in North Carolina and throughout the South, says Jim Sitts of Columbia Forest Products in Old Fort. But in the 1980s and ’90s, most of them sold off their timber holdings. And with only limited logging taking place on public lands these days, continues Sitts, 90 percent of the wood his company buys every year en route to producing some 40 million board feet of plywood comes from small private landowners. “Small, nonindustrial landowners are critical to every wood products company in Western North Carolina,” he explains. “We couldn’t run our mills without material from them.”
Thus, efforts to promote sustainable forest management practices must meet those owners’ specific needs and goals in order to be effective, says Andrew Goldberg of the Rainforest Alliance.
Yet finding and collaborating with thousands of small-scale landowners is no easy task. That’s why Goldberg’s nonprofit and its public- and private-sector partners established the Appalachian Woodlands Alliance last spring. Coalition contributors include the U.S. Forest Service and large corporations such as Avery Dennison, Columbia Forest Products, Domtar, Evergreen Packaging, Kimberly-Clark and Staples. They’ve pledged to support a three-year effort giving landowners technical and market support for implementing sustainable practices.
Since Staples doesn’t manufacture paper or furniture products itself, the office supply retailer depends on partners such as Columbia Forest Products and Domtar (headquartered in Fort Mill, S.C.) to meet its corporate sustainability commitments and respond to customer demand for responsible paper products, says Mark Buckley, vice president of environmental affairs. Thus, Staples indirectly relies on timber grown by thousands of small landowners.
In WNC, he notes, some of those holdings “have been in the family for many, many years. There’s an incredible amount of pride in the land: They view it as a legacy commitment for them and their children and grandchildren.”
The Woodlands Alliance seeks to help those folks generate income from their land while preserving the forest, notes Buckley. “We’ve all grown up thinking that there’s got to be some kind of net loss every time we’re talking about something like this, and the reality is you can create much more value.”
Chad Leatherwood of Evergreen Packaging is on the same page. He works with hundreds of private landowners who supply the small trees and treetops that are the raw material for Evergreen’s packaging and paper products. But the demand for sustainably managed forest products exceeds the supply, says Leatherwood; he hopes the Woodlands Alliance can help small landowners implement sustainable practices and achieve certification by the Forest Stewardship Council or other industry-recognized entities.
Man with a plan
Keith Johnston owns 1,600 acres in Wilkes and Watauga counties. He inherited the land from his father, who received it as payment for his share of a furniture manufacturing business. Johnston hopes to hand down the land to his two children someday. “People need to remember they just have the land for now,” he observes.
If Johnston had to pay property taxes based on the land’s value for development, keeping the acreage in the family would be hard. But like most private forest landowners, he takes advantage of the state’s present-use value program, which sets the taxes based on a property’s ability to produce income as agricultural, horticultural or forest land.
This “significant subsidy” encourages landowners to “keep their forests as forests,” notes Goldberg of the Rainforest Alliance. To qualify, he explains, owners must submit a forest management plan every 10 years outlining their goals for the property.
In 2015, Johnston hired EcoForesters to create a new plan for his land, which had been logged periodically since the 1930s. In the process, he learned that there wasn’t much marketable timber left. “My dad thought forest management meant you avoid the banks of creeks, you cut it and then you let it grow back,” Johnston says with a chuckle. “What I’ve learned from EcoForesters is that you can do both: You can take care of the land and still harvest from it.”
The Asheville-based nonprofit was established last year; Andrew Tait is one of two full-time employees. Historically, he says, foresters have tended to operate on a for-profit model, giving them an incentive to promote unsustainable practices such as high-grading: harvesting “only the best and biggest trees.” That maximizes the profit of loggers, who often pay foresters a commission based on the value of the trees cut. But it also removes the best genetic stock, leaving only the inferior trees to regenerate.
As a nonprofit, though, EcoForesters doesn’t focus solely on its bottom line. “We are looking to do good, ecologically sound forestry and then, secondarily, make an income for our client landowners,” Tait explains. Profits from its forest management work support the organization’s educational programs and conservation efforts.
What’s unique about the alliance’s approach, says Goldberg, is its market orientation. “We’re looking for ways that the marketplace can recognize and support improving forest management,” he says. “More value needs to reach the landowners based on clear evidence of good management happening on the ground.”
Alliance partners, says Sitts, have been meeting quarterly, either by teleconference or in person. A weekend gathering in October, for example, included an educational event for Morganton-area landowners.
They sent out about 8,000 invitations to people in Burke and adjoining counties who own more than 20 acres, Sitts reports, attracting nearly 100 attendees. The collaboration now hopes to hold seven or eight such events per year; likely future locations include Asheville and Fletcher. “We have high hopes that we can reach a lot of people who’ve been neglected in the past,” he explains.
Educational programs offered by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service and the wood pulp industry have focused more on the Piedmont and coastal regions, says Sitts. “This is an outreach program to bring the message of good forestry and sustainable management to landowners in this region over next three years.” After that, he hopes the project will transition into a more permanent form.
The Woodland Alliance’s corporate and public-sector partners, notes Goldberg, “didn’t have to do this.” But given the demand for sustainable forest products, “There’s a bona fide opportunity.” The alliance’s challenge is making it pay for landowners, corporations — and the environment.