“We tend to think that there is a certain unchanging static past that is the way the forest is supposed to be,” says David Moore, professor of archaeology at Warren Wilson College. But the reality is that humans have been living in Western North Carolina for at least the last 15,000 years — and our presence has shaped the land in countless ways.
For land conservation organizations like the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and the Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina, that means efforts to acquire or protect ecologically, culturally and aesthetically valuable lands are just the beginning. While local forests, meadows and balds may appear timeless, they are in fact always changing, meaning they require active management.
Jess Laggis, director of Blue Ridge Forever, a coalition of local land trusts, points out that most of this area’s land conservation organizations were founded about 20 years ago. As the organizations mature, Laggis says, many of the nonprofits are directing more of their resources to the care of conserved land.
“Each of the land trusts have staff members that are specifically focused on the stewardship of the land,” Laggis explains. “And those staff members are out on each protected parcel at least once every year, and more if there’s some sort of problem there.”
That’s a good thing, according to Andy Tait, director of EcoForesters, a nonprofit that consults with private landowners and conservation organizations. Forest lands need ongoing management to stave off increasing threats from invasive species, pests and the as-yet-unknown impact of climate change, he says.
Withering under the vine
“It’s a lot easier to get funding to save a beautiful piece of property and protect it forever,” Tait says. “It’s easy for people to get behind that and give money.”
But protection by itself isn’t enough. “If just left alone, most forests will be damaged by invasive species, so forests must be monitored for invasive plant infestations and pest or pathogen outbreaks,” Tait notes.
Although kudzu gets plenty of attention for its tree-swallowing ways, Tait actually thinks Oriental bittersweet wreaks even more havoc in our region since the vines can “tolerate shade and slowly overtake a forest.” Multiflora rose and autumn olive are among other non-native plants that have grown into big headaches, according to Tait.
One of the worst infestations of invasive species in Western North Carolina can be found on thousands of protected acres in the Sandy Mush community west of Asheville, Tait says. “Invasives like areas that have been more disturbed,” he explains. The qualities that have made the Sandy Mush area ideal for mountain agriculture also make it appealing to invasive plants. “They like sun, they like moisture, they like rich soils, and Sandy Mush has all those things because of the open and abandoned agriculture and pasture lands, which are very common out there.” Plus, Tait adds, unsustainable forestry practices over the past 100 years have created opportunities for invasive species to move in and, in a short time, become established.
“I’ve actually seen areas where the forests have been destroyed out there,” Tait says. “I’ve seen an acre of forest where the trees have been covered up by Oriental bittersweet. It has killed the trees. The trees have fallen down, and then the invasive plants are growing over the tops of these dead trees. It’s just a head-high solid thicket of invasives, literally impenetrable.”
“Just because it’s green doesn’t mean that it’s healthy,” adds Wade Johnston, EcoForesters’ digital mapping expert.
EcoForesters is working with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, which has protected thousands of acres in the Sandy Mush area, to develop plans for addressing the problem of invasives in the community. One big issue the nonprofits face is cost. Tait says a “conservative estimate” for treating a single acre infested with invasives is $200. Multiplied over 4,000 acres of affected land, the price tag approaches $1 million, and the treatment must be repeated every five to 10 years to be effective over the long haul.
“Non-native insects and diseases have wiped out the American chestnut, many elms and have already decimated the hemlocks in the Appalachians,” says Tait of another danger for conserved lands.
He notes that several local conservation organizations have made efforts to control the woolly adelgid, especially in areas with high conservation value, either by releasing predator beetles that eat the pests or applying chemical insecticides. According to SAHC’s Angela Shepherd, the organization works with the Hemlock Restoration Initiative to treat trees for invasive hemlock woolly adelgid.
“Ash trees are under threat now from the non-native emerald ash borer insect, which has been found in Buncombe County and kills all untreated ash trees in just a year or two,” Tait continues. To be effective, treatment really needs to be applied before the pests attack the tree — and the protection only lasts a year or two. As with invasive species, the costs are high: “For a tree that’s a foot in diameter, it could be $100 to treat that one tree,” Tait estimates.
While hemlocks and ash each make up less than 5 percent of the trees in the forest overall, they are integral parts of an ecosystem that’s already absorbed a number of shocks, Tait says. “The chestnut has been decimated; ash probably will be, too. The chestnut may never come back. If they do, it will be decades.”
And there’s little reason to believe these losses will be the last. “Other major forest threats are sure to emerge in the future,” Tait predicts.
Burn, baby, burn
Because the characteristic mixed-hardwood forests of the Southern Appalachians evolved in an environment of periodic burning — first by native inhabitants and later by European settlers — maintaining the same fire-adapted species requires modern landowners to adopt similar practices.
“Native peoples were burning to clear brush to encourage browse for turkeys and deer, to clear away the undergrowth and let new growth come up. They were managing the forests for both nuts and for game. That process over thousands of years had an impact on the process of forest succession,” says Warren Wilson’s Moore.
For example, oaks thrive in the semishaded forest conditions that burning creates. But in today’s heavily shaded forests — the result of three-quarters of a century of forest policy focused on suppressing forest fire — oaks struggle to regenerate, allowing more shade-tolerant species like mountain laurel, red maple and yellow poplar to proliferate, Tait says. The resulting decline in younger oak trees could reduce food crops for wildlife, among other impacts. (See “Talkin’ ’bout my regeneration: Bent Creek study tests method for reversing oak decline,” Xpress, Dec. 7, 2016)
But undertaking controlled burns, whether to encourage fire-adapted species or reduce the risk of dangerous wildfires, is challenging for nonprofit landowners due to liability issues and costs, Tait says. “We recommend that any forestland owner that has a dry oak or pine forest type and is interested in burning contact the local county ranger of the N.C. Forest Service. They are the prescribed burn experts that execute the vast majority of controlled burns in WNC,” he advises.
Despite the costs and complexity of burning, Tait notes, “in general, controlled burns are much more economical than mechanically, manually or chemically (herbiciding) thinning a dense forest.”
Down on the farm
Some landowners who place conservation easements on their properties — thereby permanently removing the possibility of many kinds of development — continue to use the land for agricultural purposes. As overseers of the easements, organizations like SAHC monitor activities to ensure that agricultural use doesn’t degrade the conservation value of the land.
In general, SAHC tries to work with individual landowners to create and monitor management plans that meet agricultural and conservation goals, says Shepherd, who serves as the organization’s communications director. “If SAHC monitors a conservation easement property and notices an agricultural issue, we’ll ask the landowner/farmer and district conservationist to work together to come up with a plan to address it,” she says. “We try to work within existing networks of agricultural expertise. If conservation easements are funded by NRCS (the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program), they require land to have a conservation plan and to follow it.”
One size definitely does not fit all. “Nationally, land trusts are advised not to use caps on the number of animals that graze on a parcel, as a sustainable number of animals on a parcel can differ with different grazing practices,” Shepherd says. For example, the impact of rotational grazing is different from keeping fields in continuous use, she explains.
At SAHC’s Community Farm in Alexander, the nonprofit has undertaken a number of management projects. “We have worked in partnership with a lot of other agencies on these projects, and we use this Community Farm property as an educational site,“ Shepherd says. The farm’s Bee Yard, managed in partnership with N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Apiary inspector Lewis Cauble, is an example of one such collaboration.
By the creek
Another Community Farm project restored over 3,000 feet of streambank for tributaries flowing into Newfound Creek in the French Broad River watershed.
“We worked with landscape architects and contractors who specialize in such restoration projects to repair eroded, steeply incised stream banks on the property,” Shepherd says. “In the process, we created riffle pools for aquatic habitat and a 150-foot buffer on each side of the stream channel. The buffer in the stream restoration area was planted with over 25,000 native trees and shrubs for slope stabilization and wildlife habitat.”
Warren Wilson’s Moore cautions that streambank restoration projects and other conservation efforts may inadvertently damage archaeological sites. “In our federal environmental legislation,” Moore notes, “those kinds of considerations have to be a part of the process that federal agencies make when they are transferring property or otherwise clearing under federal permits.”
Still, Moore says, “I love working with conservation groups. Many of them are very concerned about if we’re taking on this property, are there archaeological resources that we should be aware of?”
In the foothills
All the organizations interviewed for this article agreed that protecting water quality is one of the highest land conservation priorities. The Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina focuses on protecting watersheds, environmentally significant habitats, forests and farmlands in Alexander, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, Cleveland, Lincoln, McDowell and Rutherford counties.
Established in 1995, the organization has preserved more than 51,000 acres, 14,410 acres of which it has donated to North Carolina as state parks and 24,933 acres to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
Protecting the headwaters of the foothills region’s three major rivers — the Catawba, Broad and Yadkin — is a special focus of the conservancy’s work.
In September, the organization announced its latest conservation success: an agreement to preserve a 183-acre property along Tim’s Creek in Icard Township of eastern Burke County. “It is gratifying to know that the natural beauty of this place that we love so much will be preserved through our partnership with Foothills Conservancy and that it will remain a habitat for native plants and wildlife,” says landowner Diane Geitner, who with her husband, Jacques, donated a conservation easement for the property.
When the Foothills Conservancy began, says Beth Willard-Patton, the organization’s development director, 80 percent of its funding came from public sources, with 20 percent from private donors. That ratio has flipped, with the majority of the nonprofit’s financial support now coming from donations and family memberships. Patton-Willard sees the shift as a positive development that will “allow for more growth in the conservancy.”
In the end, says SAHC’s Shepherd, “The most common reason to preserve land is due to a desire to see beloved places remain much the same as they have been in the past.”
But as archaeology professor Moore points out, human settlement in the Southern Appalachians has always brought change to the land. “I think it’s useful to realize that sometimes we idealize the forests as a never-changing environment,” he says. “Humans have been having an impact for thousands of years. Obviously, the scale and scope of what we can do today far outweigh what native people could do in the past.”
To match the scale and scope of modern inhabitants’ impact on the land — as well as to preserve the positive aspects of the legacy of human management — conservation groups increasingly recognize the critical role of active management and stewardship of protected lands. Keeping things the same, it turns out, takes a lot of hard work and ongoing attention.