“Kirby Knob represents one of the more diverse peaks of the Cowee Range,” said retired WCU biology professor Dan Pittillo. “The quality of habitats, ranging from rock outcrops and rich wooded slopes to the drier oak and heath woods, are rarely found in this Blue Ridge Province.”
In addition to logging 16 acres on Kirby Knob, where trees are more than 80 years old, the logging operation would require several miles of new construction.
Bill Crawford, a Macon County resident, questioned why the National Forest Service was not respecting the state’s designation of Kirby Knob as a Natural Heritage Area.
“I don’t know if this sets a precedent, but it sure looks like this will open up the floodgates on more logging in natural heritage areas on public lands,” Crawford said. “We need to find a way to really protect these areas.”
Michael Wilkins, district ranger for the Wayah section of the Nantahala National Forest, said the Natural Heritage Area designation by the state is somewhat arbitrary and does not carry a mandate for the National Forest Service to leave it untouched.
“We are not so sure we agree that should be set aside,” Wilkins said. “There are no rare species there we are concerned with.”
The regional forest service office in Atlanta overturned the environmentalists’ appeal.
In addition to Kirby Knob, the operation will include logging on several pockets of national forest elsewhere in Jackson, Macon and Swain counties — 433 acres to be exact — from Scott’s Creek to Ellijay Creek. Another 90 acres in the logging operation will be thinned, a practice that primes a stand for future logging by eliminating weaker trees and allowing the remaining ones to fill out.
While Wilkins will still be logging the 16 acres on Kirby Knob, he has thrown in a concession that environmentalists should be pleased with.
Wilkins designated 176 acres adjacent to Kirby Knob as old-growth. The 176 acres tract has trees in the 80-years-old and over category — typically ripe for logging — but the old-growth designation means they will be allowed to keep on growing.
“We thought this was a richer, better area to set aside,” Wilkins said of the tract he designated. Wilkins had already designated more than 1,000 new acres as old growth as part of the logging operation proposal.
That is little consolation to those who consider Kirby Knob their backyard, like Vera Holland Guise, who traces her family lineage to the Kirby settlers for which the mountain is named. Guise is part of an effort to preserve a 100-acre farmstead in the Tilley Creek valley below Kirby Knob. A group of neighbors purchased the tract to save it from becoming a shooting range and hope to turn it into a living history farmstead.
“What’s really disturbing is that local citizens and Kirby descendents have been working to save that mountain,” said Guise. “The project as a whole designated 1,411 acres as future old growth stand.”