Nantahala National Forest -- Carolina Public Press brings attention to the U.S. Forest Service Plan: Southside Project
To cut or not to cut? Disagreement over US Forest Service’s plans for trees
MAY 20, 2019, BY JACK IGELMAN
MAY 20, 2019, BY JACK IGELMAN
The U.S. Forest Service plans to harvest the majority of trees at 16 sites in Nantahala National Forest beginning next year as part of its Southside Project.
Conservation organizations argue the trees at several of these sites represent exceptionally older and rarer growth than the Forest Service has recognized and are calling for the project to be withdrawn or revised after the Forest Service completes the revision of its land management plan for the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests in Western North Carolina, a draft of which is expected later this year.
“Only one-half of 1 percent of the forest is old growth in the Southeast,” Buzz Williams of the Chattooga Conservancy told Carolina Public Press. “That is the reason within itself to leave it alone.”
Seeing the trees within the forest
Williams recently visited a 23-acre site on a ridge below Round Mountain, near the headwaters of the Whitewater River in Jackson County. He removed a sample of wood with the diameter of a chopstick from the core of a towering chestnut oak growing on the ridge.
By viewing the rings that are visible in the sample, Williams estimated that the tree is nearly two centuries old. And it’s not alone: Scattered on the ridgeline are aging white oaks and other tree species that eluded the heavy logging of the region a century ago.
The stand of forest near the North Carolina-South Carolina state line is a perfect example, he said, of an old-growth forest ecosystem.
“There is no evidence of logging here,” Williams said. “There are no stumps.”
He reckoned that the less valuable chestnut oaks on the ridgeline or perhaps the steep grade may explain why loggers a century ago ignored it.
Most people would concede that the trees on Round Mountain are old, but the agreement may end there.
Williams and other conservationists argue that this stand of older trees and others like it are exceptional and should be conserved. The Forest Service currently says they are not sufficiently exceptional to be conserved.
The Southside Project to harvest these sites was announced in 2017. Following the release of an environmental impact statement and public comment period, Michael Wilkins, the Nantahala National Forest district ranger, released a final decision in February that approved it.
Williams’ organization opposes the project because of its impact on old-growth forest ecosystems, water quality and the biodiversity of the region.
Since the project’s announcement, the Chattooga Conservancy, which is based in Georgia, mentored several undergraduate interns from the University of North Carolina to study sites within the project area.
Among the 16 stands identified in the project for timber restoration activities, the organization has studied seven of them and, according to Williams, has “found old growth in each.” The organization plans to study each of the stands in the Southside Project area.
So a question hangs over not just the Southside Project, but other current and future projects of the U.S. Forest Service in Western North Carolina as well: Which trees and forest stands are worthy of protection and which are not?