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Watershed logging remains election issue

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

An issue that caused a firestorm of controversy for Waynesville’s current town board is rearing its head in this election cycle — and may prove to be a defining factor in how voters cast their ballots.

The debate over whether to allow forest management in the town’s watershed divided the aldermen in 2004, when a 3 to 2 vote was cast before a jam-packed, highly emotional town audience in favor of a conservation easement that would allow management.

Now, candidates are once again being forced to choose a side — and they’re divided.

Some, like mayoral candidate Gavin Brown, are backing the town board’s vote. For Brown, who voted in favor of the conservation easement as an alderman, it’s simple.

“The facts prove our ability to maintain our watershed and actively manage it,” he insists. Others, though, aren’t convinced. Alderman candidate Charles Miller has made it clear that forest management in the watershed is the issue he’s running on.

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“I feel that over 90 percent of people in the town of Waynesville are opposed to cutting any timber on that watershed and certain members of our town board have ignored these people and ignored petitions with almost 600 names opposed to the cutting of any timber,” says Miller.


The Controversy

The town’s leaders began buying up pieces of Waynesville’s watershed in the early 20th century to protect the creeks and streams that comprise the town’s drinking water source. It took nearly 100 years, but in the late 1990s, the town bought the final 690 acres to complete protection of the watershed. The watershed spreads over 8,600 acres of a bowl shaped mountainside above Allens Creek reaching all the way to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Upon purchasing the final 690 acres, Waynesville officials approached forestry experts at Western Carolina University for ideas on how to manage the property. The board worked with WCU and three conservation groups — the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, and the Conservation Trust for North Carolina — to place the watershed in a conservation easement.

The easement protects the watershed lands from ever being sold or developed. Also in the easement’s language, however, was a clause allowing for limited forest management — essentially, controlled logging — within the watershed.

That clause became the center of a fierce debate. Some town residents were appalled at the idea of logging or any human activity being allowed near their drinking water. Others argued that some forest management was necessary to keep the area healthy.

After a series of public hearings, the town board voted 3 to 2 to adopt the conservation easement, along with its clause allowing logging in the watershed.

Bates and other forestry professionals are working with local residents on a Watershed Advisory Committee to draft a comprehensive forestry management plan, due out this spring. After a series of public hearings are held and the three conservation parties are consulted, the plan will be presented to the town board for a vote.


For Easement

The three candidates who originally voted for the conservation easement — mayoral candidate and current alderman Gavin Brown, current mayor Henry Foy and current alderman Libba Feichter — are firmly sticking to their decision. The three spent significant time studying up on the issue, talking to forestry professionals and visiting other timber management sites before they made their decision.

“We spent so much time studying the issue surrounding this watershed that I feel those that made their decisions made it for the reasons they found that you couldn’t ignore,” Feichter says of the board’s decision. To her, allowing some kind of forest management was and is the only viable option for the watershed.

Alderman candidate LeRoy Roberson joins the three in support of the conservation easement. He reminds voters that before the conservation easement was put in place, there were no limits on how much logging could be done around the watershed.

“Prior to the conservation easement, logging was allowed. The conservation easement has made it more restrictive. You cannot just go in and log (without restriction) — you’ve got three environmental groups that will prevent that,” said Roberson.

Peter Bates, a forestry professor at WCU who helped the town look into management of the watershed, explained some of the reasons in favor of management that ultimately convinced Feichter, Brown, Foy and Roberson.

“No one wants to go in there and do any large scale, widespread logging. That logging would only be done in a consistence with maintaining water quality, biodiversity, and forest health,” Bates said. Selectively cutting down trees that may be diseased, damaged or preventing other trees from growing is essential to maintaining a healthy environment in the watershed, he said.

For Brown, it was important to leave the option to manage the watershed open — for this town board as well as those to come.

“I simply felt that we were retaining a valuable tool in being able to actively manage our watershed,” he said.

“Why should this board tie the hands of boards 20, 80, 100 years from now?” Town Manager Lee Galloway agreed.

Supporters of controlled management in the watershed have also pointed to potential profits from harvesting some of its timber. Black cherry, northern red oak, and poplar are among the most profitable wood to be found in the area, according to Bates.

Foy in particular has championed the benefits of timber harvesting in the watershed.

“If there’s hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars to be made from logging, people should recognize that that kind of income helps keep taxes down,” Foy said in a previous interview with The Smoky Mountain News.

At a recent mayor’s forum, however, Foy has cited a dollar amount closer to $200,000 a year in timber profits.

The exact amount of profit to be made from timber harvesting in the watershed remains up in the air. Bates said the mayor’s estimates might be high.

“If (the town) starts doing things now, I think in the future they could generate some good revenues on a sustainable basis. But a goal now of $100,000 to $200,000 a year in revenue from timber — I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Bates said.


Leave the watershed alone

“Not a leaf should be touched,” said mayoral candidate Bernie Branhut, summarizing the “hands off” view of candidates who oppose forest management in the watershed. There are surprisingly many of them — of those running for office in Waynesville, seven don’t support forest management. Among those are Gary Caldwell and Kenneth Moore, current aldermen who voted against the conservation easement. Two candidates — Charles Miller and Dick Young — have made the anti-management stance the primary plank of their platform.

Candidates in this camp are most concerned with the effect logging in the watershed could have on water quality.

“I think we have a pristine watershed up there, it’s just out of this world really, and I’d hate to see anything happen to it. I’d just like to keep it like it was. I’d just like to see it left alone, because that’s our drinking water. I want to know that that’s good, clean, pure water,” said Moore.

“We’ve got the finest watershed in the whole United States. I’m looking out for future generations, and I think we need to protect it,” Young agreed.

“We’re losing enough of our land to logging and development, and we need to protect the watershed because of it’s high water quality,” said alderman candidate Russell McLean.

Miller doubts the accuracy in comparing other studies in timber management to what would be done in the Waynesville watershed.

“There’s never been a study in the southern Appalachian mountains where timber was cut on a stream used for drinking water purposes,” Miller said.

Miller is also concerned about other environmental impacts timber harvesting could have on the watershed.

“When you cut timber, you get an excessive amount of water runoff from heavy rains and increased sedimentation. In dry weather, you have a reduction of water,” he said.

Caldwell also expressed concern over the environmental impact of harvesting timber.

“There are so many rare species and things like that up there. With WCU doing a study, I think they will find that (there) would be damage doing any logging. I just think that nature will take its own course,” he said.

Additionally, opponents of forest management in the watershed don’t agree that the financial benefits that could be derived from timber are necessary.

“I think really and truly we’ve got enough money, and I don’t see any reason going in there and doing something that we’ll regret later,” Moore said.

“Financially, I don’t really see the need for (timber harvesting) to happen. I think the town is in good financial shape,” Caldwell agreed.


Big issue for voters?

When asked whether they thought the watershed controversy would be a defining issue for voters in this year’s election, proponents of management said yes — but not because they’re making it one. Instead, they pointed the fingers at the opposing side.

“I expect it to be an issue with some voters. It has been made an issue by some of the candidates, and I believe there will be people who will be affected by that,” said Feicther.

“The opposition will certainly make the watershed a big topic,” Foy agreed.

Those that oppose management, though, are pointing the finger at voters, who they say will make it a big issue themselves. Opponents say most of the town does not support logging in the watershed.

“I say the majority of the citizens don’t want it to happen,” said Caldwell.

Young said he’s never talked to a person that was in favor of cutting timber on the watershed, while Miller stated he’s found approximately 10 people total over the four years he’s led the opposition who support management.

Branhut said he’s already been approached by a number of voters who don’t support logging and want to talk about the issue.

Hugh Phillips, a mayoral candidate who opposes logging in the watershed, said the recent drought will bring the issue of water quality to the forefront of voters’ minds in a way it may not have been with a normal rainfall pattern.

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