[Regarding “Taking the Long View: Increased Logging Will Benefit Our National Forests,” June 8, Xpress:] In Susan Fletcher’s opinion article, she tries to make the case to support the additional logging of mature and old-growth forests as recommended in the U.S. Forest Service’s updated management plans for the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. While I understand her reason for writing the article — her family owns logging and forest-service product businesses, and their financial well-being is tied to future logging opportunities on our federally owned national forest service lands — her economic and ecological rationales for allowing additional logging are fundamentally flawed. Let me provide some data that clearly contradicts her logic.
First, the economic benefits of logging in North Carolina are relatively minor compared to the economic benefits of maintaining our forested lands — especially in the mountains of Western North Carolina. A recent academic study supported by the French Broad River Partnership [avl.mx/bph] documented that the French Broad River and its tributaries (which include major portions of the Pisgah National Forest) contribute $3.8 billion annually to the regional economy. Most of these benefits come from visitors to the region who are coming to go hiking (27.5%), whitewater rafting (23.1%), kayaking (20%) and fishing (15.9%).
Alternatively, the logging industry across the entire state of North Carolina only contributes $800 million annually [avl.mx/bpi], or only 21% of the economic value of maintaining the French Broad River watershed. Even if you consider the N.C. Forest Service’s data, which focuses on forest product development, the total annual economic benefit to the state is $3.2 billion — still significantly less than the $3.5 billion associated with just maintaining the landscape in the French Broad River watershed. The amount of tax revenue (to support local schools and roads) generated by recreational activities that rely on maintaining our forest habitats clearly dwarfs that generated by logging activities.
Ecologically, the case is even more striking. A combination of the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition and other conservation groups have been documenting the remaining old-growth forests in the southern Blue Ridge mountains and have found that there are only 114,000 acres of old-growth forest remaining in the national forests along the southern Blue Ridge mountains. This amounts to only 4.5% of the local national forests and 1.5% of the Blue Ridge overall [avl.mx/bpj]. Increasing the area of old-growth forests available for harvesting will only further reduce the limited remaining area of these rare mountain habitats.
Furthermore, clear-cutting (to create new-growth forests), in addition to the loss of rare canopy trees and the associated habitat for a diversity of migrating and resident bird species, has been documented to cause significant erosion [avl.mx/bpk]. This is especially an issue in the mountains, where we have steep slopes and frequent intense rainfall events.
The mass loss of soils in the clear-cut areas ends up in the mountain streams and ultimately the rivers — impacting all the recreational uses that support the economic benefits discussed above. Trout habitats are especially impacted by increased sedimentation and the loss of tree canopy, which results in higher water temperatures not suitable for trout.
The loss of trees also changes the local hydrology, which can exacerbate stream erosion, alter aquatic habitats and increase downstream flooding. Rather than mature oaks consuming hundreds of gallons of water per year that is then “not available to municipalities,” the tree canopy intercepts rainfall, helping to infiltrate the water into the soils, which is released slowly to streams rather than rapidly running off and causing erosion and flooding issues. This natural process helps to reduce sedimentation and pollutant runoff and is one of the key reasons why the city of Asheville doesn’t allow any tree-cutting in its water supply watershed.
The bottom line is that Ms. Fletcher missed the mark on both the economic and ecological rationale for allowing expanded logging in the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. We need to recognize that the U.S. Forest Service was originally set up in 1905 and its mission was to “sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of the present and future generations.” Considering the economic and environmental benefits of minimizing logging in mature and old-growth habitats in our national forests, the U.S. Forest Service should reconsider its mission and focus less on “productivity” for tree-harvesting and more on sustaining the health and diversity of our national forest lands, streams and rivers.
— Doug Baughman
Editor’s note: Baughman reports being a retired environmental scientist with over 35 years of experience in consulting.