By Jack Igelman, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
CPP is publishing a four-part series focusing on the Southside Project, a recent initiative by the U.S. Forest Service, to make the national forest more resilient and sustainable. Part 1 is available here, and Part 2 is available here.
Green salamanders are among the Southern Appalachians’ most endearing creatures. These colorful, gentle, big-eyed amphibians can grow up to 5 inches long. With tiny legs and long, colorful, slender bodies, they are among dozens of related species that make this region of Western North Carolina the headquarters of salamander diversity.
They’re useful to humans too. They eat insects, such as mosquitoes and ticks, and they are munched by larger animals too, a vital link in the forest food chain. But their well-being serves as an important gauge of the overall health of wetlands and forested ecosystems. In other words, losing them is bad for us since they are a barometer of the ecosystem’s overall health.
On Brushy Mountain, experts have located green salamander nests in rocky outcrops. They were found within range of the aging trees on the ridge where they scamper up the grooved bark to feast on insects, seek protection from predators and stay cool during hot summer months.
Josh Kelly of MountainTrue said that Brushy Mountain seems to be one of the sites where the species is able to reproduce and a source population for the area.
“The population of green salamanders has been declining for just about as long as it’s been monitored. There’s a very real chance that, if trends continue, the species will go extinct,” Kelly said.
The loss of a tiny creature may not be equivalent to the loss of say, the American chestnut to a blight or elk by humans, but there’s definitely an impact.
Joseph Apodaca, a conservation biologist and geneticist, said the analogy for species loss is to think of salamanders as a business in a small town. “Every species you lose is like the local shoe store or toy store. Losing one of them isn’t going to crush the town, but it changes it,” he said.
Apodaca, of Tangled Bank Conservation and the Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy Biologists, has monitored green salamander sites for over a decade. He is concerned that the relative steepness of the slope below the timber site may impact the species. Soil erosion, for example, can cover nesting sites with soil, debris and plant growth. The loss of leaf litter lowers relative humidity.
“We have a species that we know uses rock outcrops, the soil and trees. And so, any impacts you have on that habitat can affect some level of their life cycle,” he said.
Populations of green salamanders plummeted in the 1970s and 1980s, followed by a gradual recovery. There’s still concern, he said, since there’s not enough evidence to show their population is growing. It’s difficult to pinpoint the precise reason for the species decline; however globally, the decline in amphibians is the result of human impact on natural environments. Road building, forest fragmentation, disease, exotic collectors and acid rain may have contributed to the decline of the green salamander.
“What we see is a zero growth rate in this population. None of them are doing well,” said Apodaca, who was hired by the Southern Environmental Law Center, or SELC, to evaluate green salamanders at sites within the project area.
The amphibians, though seldom seen because of their secretive habits, are under extreme threat from climate change, disease and habitat loss throughout the region. Their specialized habitat includes granite outcrops with narrow, moist crevices that provide cover, nesting and wintering. The amphibian has been documented by researchers to forage distances of a kilometer from their breeding grounds. The role of small patches of old-growth forests in critical places and when connected across the landscape, may help them adapt to the effects of a warming climate and its consequences.
The salamanders are recognized by the state as a “threatened species” and a “species of greatest conservation need.” According to experts, they are increasingly rare and dependent on the patch of old growth on Brushy Mountain.
Green salamanders and the Southside Project
In 2018, the Southern Environmental Law Center, MountainTrue and other organizations raised objections to the Southside Project because of the presence of rare green salamanders on sites within the Southside Project.
The Forest Service said the agency conducted surveys in July and November 2017. In addition, sites within the project area were surveyed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, or WRC.
WRC biologist Lori Williams told CPP that two surveys in the spring and fall of 2017 documented nine sites of green salamander “occurrences”: five within the harvest units and four just beyond the site boundary. Occurrences refer to the data used to evaluate the abundance or density of a species.
The previous forest supervisor, Allen Nicholas, said, in the Forest Service’s 2019 response to SELC’s objection, that the surveys showed the population of green salamanders was larger than previously known. To assess long-term population trends for the species, experts use statistical analyses and population modeling methods to estimate their population trend.
Nicholas noted that one documented occurrence of the salamander is within a stand that was clear-cut in 1989. The presence of salamanders is evidence that they “persist in stands that have recently been harvested,” wrote Nicholas. In his decision, Nicholas argued the timber harvests on Brushy Mountain may impact individual salamanders “but are not likely to lead toward federal listing” under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Their persistence despite timber activities, according to Nicholas, is evidence that green salamanders can withstand some amount of impact.
Williams confirmed that the WRC is working with the Forest Service to implement strategies to avoid and mitigate potential impacts and that the project “should not endanger the species as a whole because Brushy Mountain is just one small area within the occupied range in Western NC,” Williams wrote in an email to CPP.
The WRC is the state government agency charged with managing fish and wildlife resources, including species on public land. The Forest Service ultimately, decides how the land is managed.
Williams said wildlife officials “are very concerned with green salamanders in general.” Though the green salamander is not federally listed as endangered, future threats including development and climate change may very well lead them to the list.
Despite a lack of funding and field staff, Williams said WRC specialists and volunteers have spent decades working with this species. But field research has been very limited due to a lack of resources.
In the Forest Service’s response to the SELC, Nicholas said the best available science includes maintaining a 100-meter buffer of standing forest around documented locations of green salamanders. The belief is that leaving undisturbed forest can minimize the effects on their habitat.
The buffer around rock habitats to protect local populations during and after land management activities is “still a much-needed research question,” Williams said
The green salamander’s success also depends on a range of factors: forest type, terrain, the number of suitable rock outcrops, the health and abundance of each salamander population, whether there is a history of successful nesting, among others. Their survival depends on large, healthy, genetically diverse populations.
Buffering a habitat
A central purpose of the Southside Project is to restore wildlife habitat, said the Southside Project scoping document released by the Forest Service in February 2017. Early successional habitat, or ESH, which is underrepresented across the landscape, will replace the aging forest and provide food and cover for a range of wildlife species, including bats, ruffed grouse, songbirds and pollinators.
Natural disturbance like wildfire and burning by Native Americans and European settlers likely maintained openings in the forest. Over time, denser forests replaced the openings due to fire suppression and development, and species dependent on young forests suffered a sharp decline.
The purpose of the Southside Project aligns with the central goal of the forest plan, which is to double annual young forest creation using timber practices from its current level of 650 acres per year to 1,200 acres in the revised plan. Over time, the Forest Service will implement plans, such as the Southside Project, and work with private and public partners to achieve the goal established in the forest plan. All projects, such as Southside, are driven by the strategies and goals developed in the land management plan.
The timber project on Brushy Mountain will be used to collect environmental data “at the rock outcrops, in the buffer and out into the interior of the cuts (and at control stations far away from cuts to be able to compare) to see how conditions change across those distances,” said Williams.
“There are more green salamanders out there, but with an at-risk species, we have to take a few logical leaps and fall on the side of precaution,” said Apodoca.
The Forest Service said that the environmental analysis determined that the proposed action would not lead toward federal listing of the species. The environmental analysis, which is required by the National Environmental Policy Act, describes the environmental effects of a project and is the final say if an action is required to mitigate any negative impacts.
Whether or not the green salamander is impacted, the Forest Service is counting on benefits to other wildlife species that may thrive as a result of the logging on Brushy Mountain.
“We were responsive to these concerns and worked extensively with the WRC to evaluate recent salamander findings and potential habitat and we implemented additional mitigations,” said spokesperson Cathy Dowd of the Forest Service.
The future of small old-growth patches
Beyond Brushy Mountain, what concerns old-growth advocates most is the future of small, yet documented patches of old growth discovered in the footprint of a timber project. Environmentalists and scientists argue that small patches of old growth may have relatively high conservation value and some species, perhaps the green salamander, would be lost if small, isolated patches of remnant habitat were ignored and conservation efforts focused solely on large, intact and highly connected areas.
The proposed forest plan would create a fixed amount of forest acreage scattered across the landscape called the old-growth network. According to the Forest Service, the district rangers will have the option of how to manage small patches of old growth discovered at the project level. They may elect to preserve small patches of old growth, but they won’t be added to the network.
The agency stated that the downside is the approach doesn’t allow the addition of unidentified old growth to the network if previously unknown stands of old growth are found at the project level.
The anticipated conflict over small patches of old growth is currently playing out on Brushy Mountain.
Attorney Susannah Knox of the Southern Environmental Law Center told CPP that the agency is discounting the importance of protecting actual old growth when it’s discovered at the project level.
“The vast majority of the old-growth network is not actually old growth,” she said. “We aren’t saying you can’t cut old forests, but this is an extremely unique place and a unique habitat. So, it’s exactly the wrong place for logging, and that’s why it’s important to identify it at the project level.”
The public scrutiny of the Southside Project corresponds with mounting backlash to the Forest Plan that culminated in a public protest in August and a large volume of objections to the draft forestwide land management plan decision.
“There is a misconception that a forest left to grow automatically will become better,” said Danielle Watson, director of policy and public affairs of the Society of American Foresters. SAF’s mission is to advance sustainable management of forest resources through science, education and technology.
“Our goal is to show that science-based forestry can be beneficial for maintaining the natural functions of forest ecosystems,” she said.
Her organization believes that considering only forest growth for carbon benefits and storage is incomplete. For example, managing forests may also yield carbon benefits over the long term by more effectively managing wildfire or storing carbon in harvested wood products that replace other emissions-intensive materials.
Managed forests may also provide other ecological benefits such as diversified wildlife habitat and economic development. Among the loudest voices in the Pisgah-Nantahala plan revision process were hunters seeking more forest openings and young forests to counter declining game populations.
“We understand that there is a visceral reaction to seeing trees cut. In the past, we have not done a great job of talking about the benefits of active forest management, but modern forest science continues to get better. There are more groups coming together realizing that we have shared interests in managing forests, whether it’s in an urban space or in a national forest,” she said.
Where in the forest
There is a strong consensus across a wide range of forest stakeholders who believe that more active forest management is needed to restore the ecological balance of the landscape. In the case of Brushy Mountain, it really comes down to where those activities occur in the forest.
The Southside Project overlaps with an area in which there is disagreement based on what is considered rare and special forest. The opposition to the Forest Service’s decision underscores the friction.
Yet, making decisions swayed by complex science while juggling conflicting viewpoints driven by disparate intrinsic values people place on public land is assigned to America’s most scrutinized land management agency: the U.S. Forest Service.
The Forest Service is scrutinized because it manages and delivers resources, be it timber or trails, that are consumed and valued by millions of Americans who, thanks to landmark federal legislation, have a say in how they are managed. The agency may be misunderstood because the Forest Service has a conflicting multiuse mandate. Its mission includes both the power to protect vast sections of forestland and the authority to harvest trees too.
“We understand that [environmental groups] disagree with some aspects of this project. There are many perspectives to consider, including support from other groups for those same aspects of the project,” said Dowd.
The need for old trees and young ones is just one point of tension that plays out across dozens of other resources and values across millions of acres of national forest within the precarious context of a changing climate and evolving science.
While some animals may thrive in spite of a warmer climate, species such as the green salamander that depend on specialized habitats and, perhaps small patches of old-growth forest, may be in the greatest peril.
Soon, the agency will finalize Western North Carolina’s second national forestland management plan. The first, finalized in 1994, will be replaced by revised strategies that will have decades worth of impacts in guiding the future of public forest in the North Carolina mountains.