BY SUSAN FLETCHER
I am writing to provide some context on the recent cartoon by Brent Brown highlighting potential habitat loss for native bear populations (April 13 Xpress) and the public outcry that prompted the Buncombe County commissioners to officially object to the U.S. Forest Service’s proposed management plan for Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. To put things in perspective, those two forests comprise more than 1 million acres. Yet over the last decade, timber harvests have averaged about 800 acres — out of 1 million!
According to the Forest Service, most of the acreage in these forests hasn’t been extensively logged in at least 70 years. In other words, these forests are middle-aged at best, and heading toward old-growth just fine on their own. Remember: All living things die. All old forests began as young forests, and so the cycle goes. Nothing in this life is permanent, other than death and taxes.
Our closed-canopy forests need better age, class and structure diversity in order to benefit native wildlife. Our pollinators are in decline, we have frequent bear encounters involving trash cans and cars, and many of our forest creatures are suffering from a lack of the edges and openings that sound forest management can create.
Rest assured, the bears would prefer to browse on berries and acorns. That, however, requires active management of our forest resources rather than locking them up in parks. Brown’s cartoon shows the bears urging, “Don’t log our home,” but in fact, logging is part of the solution!
We need to create healthier, more resilient forests by using our perpetual, sustainable and renewable timber resources wisely — and, much like the patchwork of a quilt, that means including varying age classes and stands. This is essential to prepare for the many big challenges ahead: rampant insect infestations, wildfire mitigation, carbon sequestration, recharging the water table and addressing the rise of invasive species.
Edith Vanderbilt sold much of what is now Pisgah National Forest to the federal government at a greatly reduced rate, urging that these forests be conserved and used wisely to honor her husband’s legacy. George W. Vanderbilt established the Biltmore Forest School, a pioneering institution dedicated to the scientific study of forestry. Accordingly, these forests were set aside to provide multiple uses: timber, water, wildlife, recreation and range.
In other words, these lands are already protected. Elk have been reintroduced into Western North Carolina, but without the meadows and openings needed to support their growing population, they’re migrating to Jonathan Creek, Maggie Valley and even downtown Cherokee.
And unless we actively create the habitats needed by myriad species, human encounters with wildlife will continue to rise, sometimes with problematic outcomes. Biology teaches us that everything has a carrying capacity, and it’s incumbent upon us, as citizens, to understand that these “multiple uses” are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they can often complement one another to achieve the greatest good.
Sustainable forest management
Over the last 20 years, our family has had the privilege of managing the private forestlands of Pisgah View Ranch in South Hominy. During that time, we extracted more than 3 million board feet of wood products, creating brand-new revenue for the Cogburn family that has helped keep ranch operations viable. At the same time, we greatly enhanced the recreational horse trails throughout the property, established a diverse variety of habitats for many of our native wildlife species and improved overall forest resilience. We performed these operations in such a sustainable and responsible fashion that North Carolina is buying the 1,600-acre tract to create a new state park.
While we regret losing a forestry client here in Hominy Valley, this speaks volumes about the fact that multiple uses can work together harmoniously and simultaneously benefit many interests. We’re proud that our son, John Steven Fletcher Jr., graduated from Clemson with a degree in forestry and returned to these mountains to demonstrate active, responsible forest management — for the next generation and, hopefully, long after.
North Carolina has been discovered, and many of our private mountain forests are now being paved and developed, never to return to growing trees and creating timber. Thanks to “buy local” and farmland preservation efforts, we’ve made progress in conserving family farms, and I would like to see that approach applied to conserving family forests. It’s the same idea, just with a much longer growing cycle.
Rather than edible vegetables produced annually, our naturally regenerating hardwood forests consist of native woody perennials, but they still need active stewardship. To that end, we hope to see the public discussion of federal forestlands framed with the understanding that, as the Forest Service website explains, they “were originally envisioned as working forests with multiple objectives” — including furnishing “a continuous supply of timber” for our nation.
It’s also important to realize that a significant portion of the local receipts from Forest Service timber sales directly support local schools and roads. In places like Graham County, most of which consists of public lands, those dollars matter.
In fact, quadrupling our timber harvests and opening up 60% of the forest to logging, which Brown and others lament, is not enough. Remember the math: 800 acres x 4 = 3,200 acres out of a 1 million-acre holding. And progressive, passive, hands-off policies are shortsighted, with unintended consequences. For example, a mature oak can consume hundreds of gallons of water per year — water that is then not available to municipalities — so creating young, vigorous, resilient forests in watersheds is essential to meet the needs of residents.
Forever is a long time, and conditions on the ground are constantly shifting. So when contemplating public land issues, I urge folks to think about flexibility on a landscape scale. Faced with the many challenges ahead, today’s land managers need all the tools available.
Amid constant change, our forests desperately need intentional manipulations and disturbances. Sure, left alone, Mother Nature will reset these lands for us: But it will be done through ice storms, wildfires and catastrophic, random events. Just look at the West: It’s burning down, with dead tinder fueling massive forest fires, to the detriment of so many. Let’s have a data-driven discussion grounded in facts and metrics, rather than further inflaming a topic that’s already sensitive to the many families whose livelihoods depend on forestlands.
WNC residents have many assets and are blessed with the bounty these mountains provide, but we must be mindful that they can turn into liabilities at lightning speed. It’s imperative that we create a healthy, diverse ecosystem across our forest network, and to get us there, I urge a proactive approach.
To be sure, these are public lands, and I applaud the Forest Service’s efforts to be inclusive. But at some point, it needs to be able to settle in and do the work it’s charged with carrying out.
Susan Fletcher hails from Raleigh, the City of Oaks, but is proudly married to a mountain native woodsman, logger, sawmiller and chipmiller who owns Pisgah Hardwood forest management company in Candler. The family also owns Canton Sawmill and Suncrest Mulch Yard in Waynesville.