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Wednesday, 16 January 2008 00:00

Watershed represents diverse ecosystems

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Norm Christensen told the Waynesville Watershed Advisory Board (WAB), representatives from the town and a few interested onlookers that despite heavy logging in the past the forest ecosystems in Waynesville’s 8,600-acre watershed were, “remarkably healthy” and “remarkably intact.” Christensen, founding dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and currently professor of ecology at Duke, spoke to the WAB at its regular meeting Jan. 10.

Christensen and students from Duke have been surveying the watershed as part of the Western Carolina Forest Sustainability Initiative’s effort to come up with a management plan for the property. The WCFSI, under the direction of Dr. Peter Bates, associate professor of natural resources at Western Carolina University, was commissioned by the town in 2006 to create a management plan for the watershed. Researchers hope to have a draft plan by this spring.

Christensen told the group that the watershed forest was quite resilient despite having the “heck beat out of it.” He noted that preliminary sampling had recorded 250 species of plants. The surveys found no federally listed species. There are some state listed species and Christensen said there were some unique plant communities and a lot of endemism – plants that grow only in certain habitats or locales and nowhere else.

Christensen said plant diversity was particularly rich along streams and in the cove forests. The more unique communities and rarer species were found at higher elevations, in balds and around rock outcroppings.

The survey also found what Christensen described as a, “mother load of salamander diversity” and a great deal of endemism in salamander species. Salamander numbers and diversity were greatest in alluvial forests, rich coves and acidic cove settings.

According to the survey, invasive exotic plant species are not as prevalent in the watershed as they are in many area landscapes. Only four or five non-native plant species have been recorded to date. Multiflora rose was the only one Christensen suggested monitoring. He said the multiflora appeared restricted to roadsides at this time and didn’t present any kind of imminent ecological threat to the watershed. He noted that the cost of trying to eradicate it at this stage would probably outweigh any negative environmental impact, but noted it was a species watershed managers should keep an eye on.

The Duke survey revealed no ecological or environmental problems in the watershed with regards to the quality or flow of water. “The intact character of the watershed will ensure a steady flow of high quality water,” Christensen said.

Town Manager Lee Galloway, noting that some citizens feel the watershed should be “untouched,” asked what impact no logging or selective cutting of any kind would have on the forest.

Christensen said a hands-off policy would not harm the forest in any way but that there were places in the watershed where selective timbering, done right, could be a “win-win” situation, providing economic benefits to the town and ecological restoration to the forest.

Because of past timbering practices, large areas of the watershed consist of even-aged forest stands. From an ecological perspective, uneven-aged forests are more diverse and more resilient and the proper kind of thinning in the even-aged stands can accelerate the shift to uneven-aged. There are also areas of the watershed where “off-site” native species like white pine and Virginia pine dominate. These trees could be cut allowing a more natural forest to regenerate. Christensen said the key to quality, low-impact restoration logging was, “finding loggers who really understand what you want to do.”

Christensen also noted that human-induced change was already apparent on the watershed. He said that the total exclusion of fire was altering the species composition along the drier ridgetops, in balds and on drier oak sites. He noted that the former pitch and table mountain pine communities that were in place — not only on the watershed but also across the Southern Appalachians — were being lost because of the exclusion of fire.

But Christensen, a fire ecologist, cautioned that fire should be used judiciously and recommended that watershed managers closely follow Forest Service protocol when considering fire as a silviculture tool, noting that in the Southern Appalachians fire usage was still “a work in progress.”

The next WAB meeting is scheduled for Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall. Christie Fulcher, a graduate student at WCU, will talk about the natural heritage and cultural resources of the watershed.

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