Planning begins for logging project in Haywood
Round tables and large, neon sticky notes characterized last week’s kickoff of a planning process to cut timber and create elk habitat in a remote corner of northeastern Haywood County.
About 50 people representing groups including the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, MountainTrue, The Nature Conservancy, the Ruffed Grouse Society and Haywood County government — among a host of others — found their way to the room at the N.C. Arboretum in Asheville, taking a seat on the large circle of chairs waiting for them.
“This is the very start of this project,” explained Jason Herron, project lead for the U.S. Forest Service. “We haven’t even analyzed any project area for any opportunities yet because we wanted to get a very early idea of what people want from this project.”
The project area includes 10,695 acres of the Pisgah National Forest, located in the northeastern piece of Haywood that’s part of the Appalachian Ranger District. The area, referred to as 12 Mile, encompasses Long Arm Mountain and Hurricane Mountain, bordering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the west and touching the Tennessee border to the north.
Managing timber sales is part of the Forest Service’s work toward its mission to manage public land for a variety of uses — timber harvest benefits the company selling the timber but can also be managed to provide an array of ecological benefits to the forest as a whole. The Appalachian Ranger District is the next part of the Pisgah Forest in rotation for a timber harvest project, explained the District Ranger Matt McCombs, and 12 Mile is the target.
A “growing, moving” population of elk originating from the Smokies constitutes much of the reasoning behind that choice, McCombs said.
The Forest Service hopes a timber sale in 12 Mile could create more of the meadow and edge habitat elk — reintroduced to the Cataloochee area of the park in 2001 — need to thrive, resulting in a haven of sorts for the increasing population, a place for elk to congregate and live healthy lives. If successful, McCombs said, the project could help reduce conflicts with landowners whose crops elk sometimes damage — or at least buffer the population base against the human conflicts waiting in the ‘real world.’
“I think that challenge will remain,” McCombs said of human conflict with elk, “but it certainly gives elk a better opportunity to not have those human interactions that can put their lives in danger.”
Expanding the focus
The project won’t be solely focused on elk and timber, however. The Forest Service outlined two other potential goals in the letter it issued to 54 stakeholder groups invited to the July 14 meeting: ecological restoration and increased recreational opportunities.
Currently, 12 Mile doesn’t have any hiking trails or other recreation amenities — just some roads for vehicle travel and a few user-created trails. Timber harvest could be paired with efforts to increase recreation opportunities, and to improve ecology for plants and wildlife other than elk.
Those goals aren’t set in stone, however, which is why the Forest Service called the meeting before even completing an actual proposal.
“We feel like it’s more efficient to engage people early in the process instead of making assumptions about what people want,” McCombs said.
To that end, the format of the three-hour workshop-style meeting aimed to spark conversation between people with diverse perspectives on forest management, getting them to talk about what kinds of needs and issues the timber sale might address, as well as outline concerns and potential challenges.
“In multiple-use management, there’s this built-in tension,” McCombs said. “You have 1 acre, and you have five, 10, or 20 different interests to see how that 1 acre is used. By getting that all out in the open, now we have an opportunity to identify a lot of those obstacles and resolve them.”
For instance, there’s often disagreement between sportsmen with a strong interest in the young forest habitat that supports game animals like deer and grouse and their counterparts who prioritize protecting old-growth forests and the ecosystems built around them. Which areas do you cut — and how large do you allow each clearing to get — and which areas do you leave intact?
Tension can also exist between the forest’s various types of recreation users. Bikes and horses don’t mix well. And hikers would usually rather avoid sharing the trail with bikers and equestrians. Implementing any trail or amenity can also have an impact on the natural surroundings, increasing erosion or disturbing wildlife.
As far as Greg Shuping, emergency management services coordinator for Haywood County, is concerned, safety should be a top consideration in any change made to recreation amenities on 12 Mile.
“When we’re looking at how we’re going to modify and or revise any type of activity that ends up being accomplished, there’s certain hazards that we need to make sure we identify,” Shuping said. “We need to make sure we can mitigate those hazards by continuing to provide access to the area, as well as repair any infrastructure that may have been damaged for the egress to the places.”
Much of the discussion, however, focused on elk. Specifically, on how to bolster their populations while keeping them away from places where they’d become nuisances or road kill.
Maintaining a buffer between elk-friendly habitat and Interstate 40 got plenty of mentions from those in attendance.
“Something needs to be very attractive for the elk so they don’t want to leave that area,” said Leonard Harwood, a member of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council. “I tell you, they start getting out on I-40, if we get a population of elk we’re going to see fatalities. We’re going to see the public start to go the other way.”
The Mount Sterling area would be another direction to avoid funneling the elk, added Mark Williams of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission — they may not be welcome among landowners up that way.
Bottom line, though, the project area should strive to provide some good, solid meadow habitat for elk, many people said. David Stewart, of the Wildlife Resources Commission, suggested that the Forest Service even expand the project area a bit to abut wildlife habitat work his agency is doing on private land in the area. Those projects are focusing on habitat for golden-winged warblers, and those management actions tend to be good for elk too.
“We’ve found them with a gut full of acorns but they need the variety,” Stewart said of the elk. “They need diversity. They need open canopy. They need grass fields and the edge habitats.”
Identifying such partnership opportunities is a key benefit of engaging interested groups early, McCombs said. Different organizations and people have different slices of knowledge and different resources to offer for the holistic effort of timber management.
For instance, many of those in attendance pointed out a need for more data to make the best management decision possible. How many elk, bear and other species of wildlife live in that particular area? What are the numbers on road mortality nearby? What kind of demand is there for more recreational amenities in the 12 Mile Area — if a trail were built, would it be used?
Enhancing collaboration between government organizations, businesses and nonprofits could yield a greater capacity to pull together data that already exists or to fund generation of new data.
“A lot of times state and federal agencies are not in the business of trying to raise money. That’s what nonprofits do,” said Kim Delozier, a former Smokies biologist instrumental in the elk reintroduction who now works with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “Get that money from wherever the resources are, and get it in the hands of the people who can use it.”
The Forest Service came away with a host of information, comments and priorities to consider when creating a formal proposal, and it will take a while to sift through it all. By October, Herron said, they’ll hopefully have finished all the assessments and data-gathering needed to complete a proposal, which will be followed by more meetings and field trips to the area before the proposal is written. At the earliest, timber harvest could begin in fall 2017.
Though a new forest management plan is currently being drafted — the final version is expected by late 2017 — the timber sale will proceed under the existing management plan, completed in 1987 and heavily amended in 1994. However, McCombs said, the process will keep an eye turned to the developing plan and remain “sensitive to the emerging language.”
“That project (the forest management plan) won’t be completed until sometime well into the future,” McCombs said. “In the meantime, we need to still keep doing our work, and part of our job is conducting forestry on the landscape for holistic benefits.”
He’s hopeful that last week’s meeting put things off to a good start.
“I heard a few laughs throughout the day,” McCombs said as he closed out the meeting. “I’m hoping we can continue that engagement. I firmly believe it’s going to build a broadly supported and implementable project.”
• The 12 Mile area is a 10,695-acre swath of the Pisgah National Forest, part of the Appalachian Ranger District and located in the northeast portion of Haywood County adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
• The U.S. Forest Service is planning a timber harvest within the area, one of the goals of which will be to improve elk habitat.
• A new planning rule stressing collaboration is driving the planning process, so a conversation-based meeting of stakeholders was held before any proposal was developed. More public meetings will follow at a later date.
• At the earliest, timber harvest would begin in fall 2017.
• Documents related to the project are online at www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=48776.