Giving nature a helping hand: Western Carolina University’s Forest Sustainability Initiative unites students with landowners to help maintain the future of forests

By Michael Beadle

Peter Bates inspects a trio of cucumber trees growing closely together on a 20-acre tract of woods in the Balsam Mountain Preserve in Jackson County.

He checks to see if one of the trees died from a chainsaw cut known as “girdling,” in which a partial cut is made around the tree trunk. It’s a forestry management practice used these days. The idea is that some trees have to die so that others will survive, thus maintaining a healthy and productive forest.

Bates, a natural resource conservation and management professor at Western Carolina University, brings his students to places like the Balsam Mountain Preserve as part of the Western Carolina University Forest Sustainability Initiative, a program that trains the next generation of foresters by linking them with local landowners to survey forests and set up site plans for how to manage them so they will endure for generations to come.

Forest sustainability is nothing new, Bates explains, but his team of students and interns are establishing unique partnerships with a wide variety of groups who all have a vested interest in protecting the region’s shrinking forests. The goal, Bates explains, is to train students in good forest management practices. That not only means surveying tree stands, selectively harvesting trees, and ensuring species diversity. It means developing working relationships with local landowners, logging companies, developers, government agencies and land conservation groups. Some of these groups may have vastly different agendas, but Bates and his team of students try to look at the big picture and take a more scientific, objective approach when they look at a tract of forest.

“We bring people together,” Bates says.

The Western Carolina University Forest Sustainability Initiative began in 2001 as a collaboration between the Natural Resource Conservation and Management Program at WCU and the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee River. It was initially funded with $350,000 from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to focus on Southern Appalachian forests. Since then, it has grown into a year-round program that works with landowners from Brevard to Brasstown and counties in between, from 50-acre family-owned sites to the 8,500-acre Town of Waynesville watershed. The initiative offers student internships. About 20 interns have been hired over the past several years.

Bates and his students are hired as consultants by landowners to survey properties for streams, trees, plants and the basic topography. After mapping out plots of land to see what types of trees are growing on the site, they come up with recommendations for how to preserve the aesthetic beauty and rich diversity in a tree stand and at the same time help the landowner develop a plan to harvest timber — if that’s the goal.

“We don’t just cut trees,” Bates adds. “We do other kinds of habitat restoration work.”

This might include helping the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission with a prescribed burn or mapping the ideal spot for a walking trail. In other cases, it might simply mean presenting a landowner with different options about what to do with 50 acres of forest.

“There really is no one right way to manage your forest,” Bates says.

Part of the process is educating the landowner about what can be done in a tree stand given its age, size and habitat. It’s hard to know the value of the trees until they’re cut open, Bates explains, so rather than using a “lump sum” figure where the logger gets paid for every marked tree that’s cut, they use a “per volume” rate that allows for more flexibility in what gets cut.

At Balsam Mountain Preserve, Bates and his students walk up a trail where two months of logging back in the summer of 2003 thinned out a 40-acre stand of trees. There are still plenty of trees left — a hearty mix of oaks, poplars, maples, white ash and hickory — and the ground cover is full of vegetation. Light shines through the canopy of treetops.

“Most people don’t think logging looks like this,” Bates says. “We want to leave the stand in better condition than when we entered it.”

That can be a difficult task, given the often competing interests of saving trees for the future, maintaining an aesthetically pleasing piece of land, and allowing a landowner, developer or logging company to make money off a timber sale.

“That’s the dance we have to do,” Bates says.


A Changing Landscape

Once the popular logging practice was to clear-cut the land — cut down every tree and haul off as much as possible regardless of the age of trees or the species living in the habitat. A century ago, there were plenty of available forests to cut, but these days clear-cutting is not the conventional practice, and once prevalent logging companies have closed down or moved on to other regions. Today’s parcels of land have shrunk, and landowners have a much different kind of mindset given the growing price of land and increased environmental regulations.

David Jones, formerly a logger and now a timber seller with his family’s saw mill business in Franklin, said that after 11 years of logging he had to switch jobs as the availability of timber lands dried up.

“I’d say in the last few decades, it’s drastically changed,” Jones said. “A way of life is disappearing.”

More real estate development and subdivided lots have reduced the amount of land where loggers can cut. You don’t see as many people going into the logging industry these days, Jones added.

Even at his family’s sawmill business, Cook Brothers Lumber Company, they’ve had to cut back from five days a week sawing logs to two or three days a week.

But Jones applauds what Bates and his students are doing to work with private landowners to preserve tree stands for selective harvesting.

“We’ve got to manage our forests,” Jones said. “Pete’s done a real good job with that.”

Today’s loggers have fewer opportunities to harvest timber, so when they see one last chance to cut in a planned development site, there’s more of an incentive to get all the valuable timber that’s there rather than leave some trees behind.

But Bates argues that if you leave some of the trees to grow a decade or so longer, a tree stand can become much more valuable. Sure, cutting down all the trees gets a quick return on your investment, but allowing some of the trees to mature can be more profitable in the long run. Trees up to 60 years old are not that valuable, according to Bates, but 20 or 30 years after that, the value tends to double or even triple — especially if trees growing around it are removed so that more nutrients and sunlight are available. The net result means wider diameter trees, which can be sawed into wider boards or made into veneer. Bates and his team will recommend that certain trees remain while ensuring that loggers get top dollar for the trees they cut and haul off to the sawmill.


Healthy Forests

Managing forests also means making sure the trees are healthy. Non-native species like kudzu can spread and choke out native species. In addition, invasive insects bring destruction to certain types of trees. The hemlock woolly adelgid, for example, has decimated hemlocks in the region. Originally introduced from Asia into the U.S. Northwest in 1924, it came across the country after a few decades and has been killing hemlocks ever since.

“Global trade just opens all these Pandora’s boxes,” says Rob Lamb, Bates’ assistant with the WCU Forest Sustainability Initiative.

With more open trade around the world, plants and trees are being shipped all over, and deadly spores can catch a ride on the leaves of bushes, plants and trees. The emerald ash borer, an insect that kills ash trees, has been spread from the Midwest on firewood. Foresters are also keeping a watch on sudden oak death, a fungal disease from Northern California that could be the next chestnut blight. Keeping the forests more diverse helps to ensure that if one pest kills off a species, the whole forest won’t be destroyed.

At another site on the Balsam Mountain Preserve, Bates and his students survey a stand of trees that have grown up from a clear-cutting. Coppice, which is the natural regeneration of trees from root suckers and stump sprouts, presents its own challenges. One school of thought maintains that you should cut sprouts as soon as they form, but Bates knows they will grow right back, so he favors letting nature take its course. Natural competition may end up favoring one sprout over another. If not, competing sprouts will have to be cut.

In this particular stand, Bates and his team are trying to increase the amount of oaks and black cherry trees and decrease the amount of prevalent yellow poplar. Using a method known as “crop tree release,” certain competing trees are killed around a given tree to allow it to grow more successfully. Trees are identified with color-coated ribbons to denote various treatment methods. Some trees are cut with a standard chainsaw. Some trees get hacked and sprayed with an herbicide. In other cases, it’s chainsaw girdling.

Bates and his students will be watching those results to see what practices work best.

Apparently the girdling didn’t work. The chainsaw gashes weren’t wide enough to kill the tree. The herbicides, on the other hand, did work, but there’s a danger of killing the tree you’re trying to protect because root systems are woven together underground.

Despite these challenges, Bates is pleased with the effort. His students, who represent the next generation of forestry managers, know it will take years and decades to see the fruits of their work.

“Time will let nature take its course,” says Jenny Mozeley, a WCU senior and forest management major. “The way we interact with it does matter.”

With some extra help, a forest can grow back even stronger.

“It’s not Joyce Kilmer yet,” says Lamb, referring to the huge, unspoiled virgin forests of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in nearby Graham County.

If Western North Carolina represents one of the most diverse forest regions in the world, why not create a system of practical sustainability that could be used as a model elsewhere?

“We can do it here,” Bates says.

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