Rob Lamb paused and peered out from the brim of his hard hat, lifted a hand and pointed downslope to a trail of ripples unfolding across the otherwise glassy top of a small lake, hardly a puddle really when compared to the towering Balsam massif that circles it. Two ducks slid by, like sentinels for this secret forested dominion that lies just beyond Waynesville’s back door.
But Lamb wasn’t there to bird watch, and so he pressed on, skirting the lake and heading up the rugged face of the 6,000-foot-peaks that cocoon the lake.
The steep slopes that ring the lake make it supremely well-suited to the job it was picked for. Fed by the clear, mountain streams of an 8,000-acre preserve, this lake is the lifeblood for thousands of people in the Waynesville area — delivering the most immaculate water found anywhere in the state every time they turn on their faucet.
Lamb is here to make sure it stays that way. The director of the nonprofit Forest Stewards, Lamb and his team of forest ecologists advise the town on the health of the forest that encompasses the watershed.
The stillness of the forest was suddenly broken by the low putting of a motor. It revved, growing louder and faster, and then a sharp buzz cut through the air — the unmistakable sound of a chainsaw grinding into a tree.
The saw quit just as a loud splintering crack, almost like a lightening bolt, ricocheted up the mountain slopes. Silence returned, hanging over the forest for an instant, before it was shattered once more by a powerful whoosh through the tree tops and a deafening crash to the ground.
Lamb headed in its direction, and after five minutes of hard hiking, a bulldozer hauling a freshly, fallen tree trunk came into view through.
At first blush, cutting down trees in a forest surrounding the headwaters of a pristine drinking water reservoir seems incongruous.
But, in this case, logging is actually a means to a higher end.
“We call it positive impact forestry,” Lamb said. “We want to do restoration, forest health, ecology. And ultimately, a healthy forest being a means to high water quality.”
Lamb is a fix-it man when it comes to forests. While the Waynesville watershed may seem like an untouched pocket of wilderness, that’s far from the case. It’s been logged over in the past, and in not-so-sensitive ways.
The need for intervention
Logging is nothing new to the 8,000-acre watershed. It was logged heavily, clear-cut almost, in the early 1900s. That was par for the course during the great timber boom. Few forests in the mountains escaped the logging heyday unscathed.
“There’s really not any old-growth in here,” Lamb said.
The logging practices of the day were reckless. Cutting the trees was only half the damage. The havoc wreaked on creeks, which were used like flumes to push the giant trees down the mountains, left ecological scars still seen more than a century later.
“This forest has been highly manipulated,” Lamb said.
The town bought a huge tract of this logged-over land at the head of Allens Creek in the 1920s, a bold step to lay claim to the slopes upstream of its water supply. It was a visionary move in hindsight, but every town leader in office at the time was promptly voted out in the next election.
The town periodically logged the watershed as a moneymaker — with large-scale timbering in the 1950s and again in the 1980s.
Back then, the lake that serves as today’s water reservoir hadn’t been created yet. Water was drawn out of different creeks at different times.
“As they logged one area, they would mess up that part,” said Dr. Peter Bates, a natural resources professor at Western Carolina University who collaborates with Forest Stewards.
So the piping for the town water system would be rerouted and tied into a new creek, kind of like tapping a grove of sugar maples.
Eventually, a bona fide water reservoir was built, a 52-acre lake held back by a towering earthen dam.
The nasty side-effects of a white pine stand
Now, for the first time in 30 years, trees are being cut in the watershed again, but for far different reasons than the profit-driven logging of the past.
“The motivation is not to make money. It is for the health of the forest,” said Waynesville Town Manager Marcy Onieal.
The current logging is targeting a 50-acre stand of white pine that is so dense and crowded the trees are in a state of decline.
The only way to fix it is to cut a lot of them down.
“There is no light that gets through that white pine. We have to thin them to allow sunlight to get in there and regenerate the understory,” Bates said.
The white pines were planted intentionally 30 years ago, just 10 feet apart in some places. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and arguably was. During construction of the water reservoir, dirt was dug out of the mountainside to build the giant earthen dam. But when the work was finished, something had to be done to shore up the denuded area.
“They were planted really close together for soil stabilization,” Lamb said of the white pines, which are quick-growing and don’t mind poor soil.
But as mature trees, especially packed in that tight, they began to falter.
“At a certain point, they stop growing. They run out of growing space because they are competing for light and soil resources,” Lamb said.
Lamb knelt by a fallen white pine in the logging area and examined the cross-section of the trunk. The tree rings told the tale: the more recent rings were stacked so close together, the tree clearly hadn’t been growing much year over year.
There were other signs of the trees’ demise as well. Lamb pointed skyward, toward the crown of the pines. Tufts of green branches were perched atop the tall trunks like a mushroom cap. The rest of the trunk was spiked with dead, broken-off limbs, like rungs of a ladder. It’s common for the lower branches of evergreens to die off as the tree grows — but not to this extent.
The rule of thumb: if the top third of the trunk has green branches, the tree is healthy. It’s called the “live crown to height ratio” in forestry speak.
There was only one fate for these white pines: they would eventually die, and likely sooner than later.
“In 10 years, this white pine stand might fall apart,” Lamb said. “So it was an immediate forest health issue.”
When they died, the skeletons of the white pines would topple, heaving up mounds of loose soil as their root mass ripped from the ground.
The fallen stand of dead white pines would then leave a denuded swath of earth once more, just upslope from the precious water reservoir, setting the stage for sediment and dirt to wash down into the lake with every rain.
“All of a sudden you have bare ground and there would then be a period of erosion,” Lamb said.
That is exactly what Lamb and Bates hope to head off. Their plan is two fold. By thinning some of the trees, the remaining ones will stand a better chance. Meanwhile, with the dense canopy opened up to sunlight, the forest floor can begin to regenerate.
Picking which white pines to cut down and which to leave behind is critical. Lamb sizes up all the trees in a stand before marking the ones to be cut by the loggers.
There’s several variables in play. The ones that survive the axe will ultimately be the most healthy, with the best chance of growing into a robust tree once their competition is eliminated.
“When we marked them, we wanted our eye on what is a healthy tree,” Lamb said.
The ones left standing must also be spaced far enough apart that new forest can grow up around them.
“We are trying to get back to a native hardwood forest,” Lamb said.
Therein lies the other problem with white pines — they don’t pack a lot of ecological punch.
“It’s not a keystone tree like an oak, which produces acorns for so many wildlife species,” Lamb said.
White pines aren’t necessarily bad, but they aren’t a tree you want acres and acres of all on their own.
Homogenous forests — no matter the species — give foresters cause for alarm.
“Forests are dynamic and prone to disturbance,” Lamb said.
Disease, invasive insects, blights, funguses and even global warming can weaken and even wipe out a species.
“Forest diversity is the best way to guard against future threats and subsequently water quality problems,” Lamb said.
While forestry is a science, there’s also an art to it. The forest is a canvas, and designing a regeneration plan is like painting a landscape portrait — which makes Lamb and Bates the Thomas Moran’s of the Waynesville watershed.
“We go with what the forest tells us,” Lamb said.
Logging treads lightly in Waynesville’s watershed
Third-generation logger Cecil Brooks took a gamble when he offered to pay $7,000 for a stand of bedraggled white pines in the Waynesville watershed sanctuary last fall.
The town of Waynesville had been trying to unload the unwanted white pines for a year. The monotonous fields of pine saplings planted three decades ago — some 50 acres worth — were in a state of decline, not exactly the epitome of an ecological preserve. So the town’s watershed advisors recommended thinning out the white pines to make way for a real forest.
Usually, loggers bid on stands of timber, paying the owner of the trees a cut of the profits.
But the job in the watershed wasn’t getting any takers.
Various loggers sized up the white pine stand but concluded the timber wouldn’t sell for enough to make the job worthwhile. It seemed the town would have to pay a logger to cut and haul off the white pine to get it gone.
For starters, white pine isn’t a very valuable wood. But the bigger hang up was the nature of the job. Cutting timber in the sensitive watershed would require “light touch” logging methods. The sustainable practices the town was insisting on are far more labor intensive, and thus not as lucrative for a logger to take on.
But last fall, as Brooks looked ahead to the slow winter months in the logging industry, he took the gamble and offered the town a measly $7,000 for the privilege of taking out the white pine.
“White pine was beginning to move a little bit,” Brooks said. “I figure if I can break even or make a little something, it’s better than sitting at home.”
Brooks, 66, whose grandfathers on both sides had “fooled with timber,” would rather be out in the woods breaking even doing what he loves than be cooped up indoors.
This winter, Brooks has been hacking away at the white pine in the watershed. The philosophy behind light-touch logging is to leave as little footprint as possible.
Instead of wholesale logging, only certain trees are marked for cutting, leaving parts of the forest in tact around the trees being removed.
“When you are falling one, you try to protect the others,” Brooks said.
He also has to keep the ground from being torn up except for very narrow haul paths to drag the trees out.
“I’m not using a big truck boom, or rubber tired skidder,” Brooks said.
When trees are felled, instead of hauling the whole tree, crown and all, to a landing area with giant trimming equipment, the branches are stripped from the tree where it falls by hand with a chainsaw. Then, just the marketable trunk is dragged out on a narrow haul path, limiting disturbance of the forest floor to the width of a dozer instead of a wide swath.
Most importantly, the logging can’t mar or muddy the creeks flowing through the watershed — which feeds the all-important drinking water reservoir for the greater Waynesville area. So Brooks must work within restrictive buffer guidelines.
Upping the ante even more, water quality is being monitored alongside the logging by a professor with Western Carolina University’s Natural Resources Department.
The forestry plan that lays out where, what and how Brooks is logging was designed by Forest Stewards, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable forestry that’s affiliated with Western Carolina University, led by Director Rob Lamb and Dr. Peter Bates, a professor in WCU’s natural resources program.
— By Becky Johnson
Not so clear-cut
A logging operation got underway in the Waynesville watershed this winter — the first since town leaders put the 8,000-acre preserve in a conservation trust nine years ago.
The binding pact safeguards the watershed for future generations, ensuring it will remain protected forever, rather than hinge on the whims of town leaders at any particular juncture. Before, there was nothing to prevent the town from tapping the watershed as a cash cow — be it commercial logging or even selling it off.
The conservation plan sparked fierce debate. Not over whether to permanently and irrevocably protect the watershed, but whether to make an allowance for forest management.
Advocates of a “Forever Wild” trust wanted a hands-off approach, fearing that forest management was just a ruse for logging that could harm the water quality of the drinking water reservoir fed by creeks flowing through the watershed.
But the proponents of a “Working Forest” trust won out, making the case that logging is not mutually exclusive to preserving water quality — and in some cases is even needed to improve a forest’s ecology.
Given the controversy a decade ago, The Smoky Mountain News ventured in to the Waynesville watershed to see what the so-called light touch logging looks like now that it is happening on the ground.