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Advocates want to save little-known old growth pockets

coverHidden among the expanse of forestland in Western North Carolina are little-known pockets of trees that are several centuries old. Either overlooked by loggers or too difficult to access, the old growth stands act as windows into the past and markers of Appalachian history.

Since the end of the Civil War until the 1930s, most forests in the eastern United States were clear-cut. However, some tracts were able to escape that era of industrialized logging and continue to grow.

Forests and water could be doomed in 2060

A comprehensive U.S. Forest Service report released last month examines how expanding populations, increased urbanization, and changing land-use patterns could impact natural resources, including water supplies, nationwide during the next 50 years.

Forest service ignites firestorm over proposed burn

out frThe U.S. Forest Service is proposing a controlled burn in Panthertown Valley, a popular recreation area in Jackson County dissected with hiking and biking trails, abundant waterfalls and camping sites.

Mapping Mountain Treasures: Wilderness on the line

A sweeping review of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests will get under way in a matter of months, a behemoth, multi-year process that will layout a new blueprint for how the forests are managed for the first time in 20 years.

Environmentalists have been prepping for the forest plan for more than five years already. After all, the fate of 1.1 million acres of public land in the mountains hinges on the vision mapped out in the forest plan.

The changing face of WNC’s national forests

 coverA million acres of national forests sounds like a lot, and indeed it is. But consider the 8.6 million people who visit the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests every year and those vast green swaths that checker any map of Western North Carolina don’t seem quite so big after all.

HCC students serve up animal calls at annual wild game dinner

Chris Graves had just parked a school van in a field, and his wildlife students were filing out for some hands-on, out-of-the-classroom learning when they spotted a flock of about 80 crows clustered together.

No sooner were they out of the vehicle when one of Graves’ pupils began imitating the birds’ call. Chill ran up the students’ spines as the crows, like a scene out of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, swarmed toward them.

“Students will remember that,” said Graves, a fish and wildlife management instructor at Haywood Community College.

With the sixth annual Wild Game Dinner rapidly approaching, students will have the chance to raise money while showing off their animal-calling skills to a crowd of hundreds of friends, family and curious community members.

The event also features a calling competition, in which students and others perform their best imitation of various animals’ purrs, clucks, yelps and cackles.

The main purpose of honing your wildlife calls is to draw an animal in when hunting. But outdoor sportsmen — a generally competitive bunch — have taken it to a new level, Graves said.

“It’s fun, but at some competitions, they get pretty serious about it,” he said.

Many of HCC’s students started hunting and learning how to call certain critters since they were young.

“I think they were born in camo,” said Shannon Rabby, a Fish and Wildlife Management Technology instructor. “They love the outdoors.”

Not only does the event provide amusement but it also serves as a good warm-up for the students who soon after battle other schools at the Southeastern Wildlife Conclave in mid-March.

“We are kind of proud of what we do at that,” Rabby said.

The group has snagged third place during the past couple of years despite going head to head with mostly upperclassmen and graduate students from four-year universities, including LSU and Auburn University.

“My students are freshmen and sophomores,” Rabby said with pride.

Haywood Community College is renowned for its various natural resources degrees, a sought after program by students across the South who want to be foresters, game wardens, park rangers and the like.

The annual Wildgame Dinner hosted by the students has outgrown its venue twice in its just six-year history, a reflection of its upstanding reputation in the community.

The school’s Wildlife Club began hosting the wild game dinner in the lower level of HCC’s student center. As the event grew, it moved to the Haywood County Armory.

“Next thing we knew, we had filled up the armory,” Rabby said. “It’s tremendously successful.”

Last year, about 700 people attended the dinner. It is now held at the Haywood County Fairgrounds.

The potluck dinner includes a silent auction with everything from art to live animals, a gun and live music by No Show Jones and the Wildermen. The six-member band first performed at the dinner last year and is made up of HCC students in the Natural Resources Department.

“What shocked me is I had them in class … these guys are very quiet,” Rabby said. But, not when they get an instrument in their hands.

The grand prize for the night is a lifetime hunting and fishing license. Funds raised at the dinner help pay for a scholarship as well as travel to various conferences and competitions.

“We want this to be a celebration,” said Rabby.


Answer the Call

Haywood Community College’s Wildlife Club is hosting its annual benefit dinner, complete with drawings, live music, a silent auction and, of course, food. Attendees are encouraged to bring a dish as the dinner is a potluck and money to bid on items ranging from art to live animals.

What: The 6th annual Wild Game Dinner

When: 6 p.m., March 2

Where: Haywood County Fairgrounds

How Much: Suggested donation of $10 per person or $5 if you bring a dish.

Old growth’s last stand: Joyce Kilmer Forest marks 75th anniversary

That the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in Graham County isn’t what it once was is true — the large hemlocks are dying or dead, victim of the hemlock wooly adelgid, a tiny insect that is changing the landscape of Western North Carolina as profoundly as the chestnut blight once did.

But most of the poplars still tower, more than 100 feet tall and 15- to 20-feet in circumference. And to Graham County native and retired U.S. Forest Service Ranger Marshall McClung, Joyce Kilmer is still a rare and beautiful place.

Despite the loss of giant hemlocks and even some of the giant poplars being broken in storms, the trek to Graham County is well worth the effort, McClung said. Around 40,000 people come each year to Joyce Kilmer to walk along its two loop trails under the towering branches.

People will gather here at the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest on July 30 to celebrate the forest’s 75th anniversary. The keynote speaker at the event will be Joyce Kilmer biographer John Covell.

After Joyce Kilmer was killed in action during World War I, veterans of the Foreign Wars asked the U.S. government to set aside a “fitting stand of trees” to serve as a living memorial to the poet and soldier. Kilmer’s best-known poem was called “Trees.”

Years passed until 1935, when a regional forester wrote the chief of the U.S. Forest Service that the forest that now makes up Joyce Kilmer was one of the “very few remaining tracts of virgin hardwood in the Appalachians ... we ought to buy it to preserve some of the forest original growth in the Appalachians.”

The next year, the U.S. Forest Service bought 13,055 acres for $28 per acre — a steep price for its day. Most of the surrounding land was logged, but the area around Little Santeetlah Creek in Graham County had been spared. It’s logging potential and the value of the giant uncut trees, made the cost higher than most tracts acquired by the forest service.

The upper loop, a three-quarter of a mile trail that swings through Poplar Cove, lives on “as a great example of an old-growth forest,” said Lauren Stull, acting district ranger for the Cheoah/Tusquitee districts of the Nantahala National Forest.

Stull, like McClung, believes Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest remains a unique and beautiful area. In addition to the massive poplar trees, McClung said in more inaccessible areas one can also admire huge basswoods and northern red oaks. Additionally, there are 400 or so Indian graves in the forest, victims of a smallpox epidemic in the 1700s, he said.

Old growth isn’t that easy to define, said Norma Ivey of Franklin, who once worked for the conservation group WNC Alliance as an old-growth expert.

It’s not just about old trees. You are really in search of a complete forest cycle, she said, explaining too that tallness is not necessarily an indicator of old.

“You want to see older trees standing, and downed, and smaller trees coming in,” Ivey said. “A rotation of your forest, a mix of trees for that specific site (by such measures as altitude and available sunlight). You want to see a forest that’s being turned over.”

But when it comes to old and tall, Joyce Kilmer is certainly a crowned jewel.

“The big trees are still very impressive,” said Ivey, who visited Joyce Kilmer again a year or so ago after a many-year absence from the forest. “It’s worth going to see them.”


Want to go?

A day of festivities honoring the 75th anniversary of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest will be held Saturday, July 30. Activities will center around the Rattler Ford Group Camp. Parking attendants will direct traffic, and shuttles will run throughout the day to get people around the event area. Bring a lawn chair.

Events include:

• Guided tours of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest throughout the day.

• Booths and exhibits by Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards demonstrations of primitive forest tools and care for the land, The Wilderness Society, N.C. Agricultural Extension Service, American Chestnut Foundation, U.S. Forest Service, Partners of the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness, Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians with children’s activities and dances, National Wild Turkey Federation N.C. Forest Service.

• Homecoming for all present and former Cheoah Ranger District employees and volunteers throughout the years at 10 a.m.

• Formal rededication ceremony of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest at 1 p.m. Speakers include U.S. Rep Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville; Principal Chief Michell Hicks, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; Kevin Anton, Alcoa’s chief sustainability officer; and the keynote speech by John Covell, author of “Joyce Kilmer: A Literary Biography.” Participation by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and descendents of Joyce Kilmer.

• Bluegrass music by Robbinsville’s “Britthaven Bunch” at 2 p.m.

• Lunch plates will be served by the Robbinsville Lions Club, with baked goods from the volunteers of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library Initiative in Graham County.

• A 5K and 10K road race and 1-mile fun run will be held at 8 a.m. from the Avey Branch Boat Launch.

HCC causes a stir with clear cutting

A new and long-awaited Creative Arts Building is only days away from its groundbreaking ceremony at Haywood Community College. But the tree clearing undertaken to prepare the way for the new crafts center has proven less-than-popular with some of the school’s forestry students.

Andy Fitzsimmons, a student in the college’s nationally recognized forestry program, said he’s lamenting the loss of trees that have been used as teaching tools for the school’s natural resources programs.

“There were some trees in there that had been there for a very long time, there were some that were just starting to sprout up,” said Fitzsimmons. “I feel like it just takes away learning tools from other departments.”

The college says that the trees in question had to go in order to make way for contractors to begin work. Some students were also displeased by the way the plants were taken out — dozed over rather than cut.

“They just seemed to go in there with tractors and push trees over, they didn’t even saw a lot of the trees,” said Jeremy Graves, a recent forestry graduate. “Even if they were going to proceed at that site, they could’ve taken their time and allowed the students to go in there and fell the trees. That would’ve been an excellent teaching opportunity for students that are still in the program.”

Debbie Trull, the school’s executive director of administration, said that the college really did everything in its power to fell the trees properly, making sure they were still useable either for firewood or to be milled and reused as flooring in the school’s new research house.

As for using students in the removal process, Trull said the idea was broached by the architect and discussed at the school, but because of a logging accident that happened there in 1982, the decision was made that letting students cut the trees was too dangerous.

“Where they get the opportunity to practice with their chainsaws is in their operating-a-chainsaw class,” said Trull, adding that they did use forestry students to mark the trees that were appropriate for removal before uprooting them.

Some students, however, see the bare and leveled patch of land as an eyesore and blemish on the face of their famously beautiful campus.

“It’s supposed to be an arboretum,” said Graves. “People come from all over to see the school, to walk through there and see the plants and wildlife. I think it kind-of goes against what the school claims to promote and I think it’s a big eyesore for the campus.”

Dae-Won Koh, the project manager for the building and vice president of Innovative Designs, the project’s lead architect, said that they’ve actually planned for the removal of as few trees as possible. In fact, said Koh, the amount of trees left on the site is going to be a greater challenge for the contractor, but they felt it was important to save as much of the surrounding flora as possible.

The contract for the $8.3 million building, which will house the college’s well-known professional crafts programs, was just awarded to Miles-McClellan Construction. The groundbreaking is scheduled for March 6, after which construction on the 41,665-square-foot, environmentally friendly building will begin in earnest.

By the time construction is finished, said Koh, the school is planning to replant two trees for every tree that was removed, which will be reflected in his final landscape plan.

In fact, he said, though the decision to cut down larger, older trees might not be as aesthetically pleasing or popular as removing smaller ones, research done by his firm has shown that it will go further towards reducing the building’s carbon footprint.

“The reason that we supported the college’s decision on planting new trees two-to-one is because when they [the trees] are old, their photosynthesis is quite low compared to the young trees,” said Koh. “If you plant new, young trees, they have to grow so fast, the contribution to the environment is the greater.”

Trull said that the school has taken all these things into consideration and has tried to make the most eco-friendly decisions for the site.

“There is a landscape plan and we worked within that contract as we could and with the department of natural resources as much as we could to do everything correctly,” said Trull.

Even so, the naked patch that now features in the center of an otherwise-green campus still doesn’t sit well with some who prize the school for its natural beauty and want to keep it that way.

“It’s an area of natural space that’s destroyed, it’s gone,” said Graves. “To drive by there and see it, it just hurts.”

Logging for cash versus long-range forest health

Logging in national forests might take on a radically different look in coming years.

The forest service might be moving away from the old-school timber sale, where stands of trees were auctioned to the highest bidder and then left to the loggers to harvest. Instead, the forest service is looking to private foresters or organizations to be long-range partners — not merely extracting timber but also managing the forest for its overall health.

Called stewardship contracts, the forest service has been testing this new way of doing business with a handful of pilot projects in recent years.

“Basically we were allowed to go out and try different things to see what works and what doesn’t,” said Dale Remington, sales forester for the National Forests in North Carolina.

The new approach means the forest service can award bids based on the “best contract” rather than the most money, Remington said. The contract could go to a timber company, but could likewise be awarded to an environmental group or hunting club.

Under stewardship contracts, the Forest Service could lay out the goals and objectives and let the contractor tell them how they planned to achieve those goals, he said. And unlike the traditional timber sale, those goals could even include wildlife diversity and protecting old growth stands.

Stewardship contracts differ greatly from the old timber sale bids.

“There are many differences,” Remington said. “To begin with it’s a collaborative effort from the start.”

He said the Forest Service tries to get its partners, the public, interested non-profits, prospective contractors and other interested parties involved from the outset shaping the goals and defining the concerns for forest tracts.

“In my 30-year career, I’ve seen the service at odds with any number of groups and now we’re talking with them,” said Remington. “We won’t agree on everything, but we try and come up with a plan that everyone can live with.”

Ben Prater, associate executive director of Wild South, said his organization has been involved in some of the pilot programs and believes stewardship contracting is the wave of the future.

“It’s a new way of doing business and if done right, it’s a great tool,” Prater said.

Prater believes that the openness and upfront collaboration incorporated by the stewardship model may help ease the litigious relationship many environmental groups had with the Forest Service. “Under the old timber-driven contracts, the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] process was basically the only way the public could have any input — and that usually meant lawsuits,” he said.

“It’s a different business, it’s a different time and everybody has to adapt. I like the stewardship contract because it allows us to step back and look at the bigger picture,” he said.

Stewardship contracts can also be spread over a larger area than conventional timber sales. Most conventional timber sales are confined to only the specific area the logging will be done. Most of them impact around 150 to 250 acres. Under stewardship contracts, the Forest Service designates the stewardship area and it can range from a simple stream corridor to an entire basin encompassing 2,000 or more acres.

Contractors may be asked, as part of the contract, to create wildlife openings, to treat exotic invasives or to reduce forest fire hazards, for example.


Putting the plan on the ground

Stewardship contracts not only have fans among environmental groups, but also hunting advocacy organizations.

Dave Wilson, director of stewardship with the National Wild Turkey Federation, believes stewardship contracts provide a holistic approach to managing forests — one that could be good for game species like turkeys.

The NWTF was one of the earliest groups to be awarded stewardship agreements with the Forest Service. It has worked on projects across the country, including North Carolina. It is currently working on the Mulberry/Globe stewardship project in the Grandfather District.

Wilson said he believes stewardship contracts offer a better understanding of “outcomes value.”

“It allows us or whoever the contractor is to utilize the value of the timber sold to do much needed restoration work,” said Wilson.

Putting the plan on the ground puts local companies to work. And the fact that stewardship contracts can have a 10-year lifespan means they can keep people working for a while. It might require a new mindset and some new skill sets, but Wilson said most timber companies don’t mind the learning curve.

“We have timber contractors willing to stay after they’ve cut the marketable timber and create wildlife openings or do other types of restoration work,” said Wilson. “The bottom line for us is that increasing and improving habitat improves the forests, and thus improves the habitat for wild turkeys as well as other wildlife.”


Spreading the word

Stewardship contracts first became an option for the forest service in 1999, thanks to some fine print tucked into the Congressional budget bill that year. Congress gave the forest service authority “to enter into stewardship projects … to perform services to achieve land management goals for the National Forests or public lands that meet local and rural community needs.”

North Carolina has seen a couple of pilot stewardship contracts since then. Remington said the projects were well received, and as a result the Forest Service was given the authority to continue using stewardship contracts to manage National Forests through 2013.

“And I believe it will be extended beyond that deadline because it’s been so successful,” Remington said.

The Smoky Mountain News will go to print before the Pisgah Chapter of the Society of American Foresters meets on Tuesday night (Jan. 18), but Dale Remington will be talking to the chapter about stewardship contracting and the opportunities for regional natural resource professionals and organizations.

Rob Lamb, chair of the Pisgah Chapter and executive director of Forest Stewards, a nonprofit connected with Western Carolina University to promote and implement forest stewardship in the Appalachians, said he would be wearing both of his hats to the meeting Tuesday. Lamb said it would be interesting to find out what kind of roles registered foresters might play in stewardship plans and what kinds of roles might be available to Forest Stewards.

“I’m especially pleased to see the bigger landscape approach and learn about all the new opportunities that could result from stewardship contracting,” Lamb said.

Forestry, farmland tax breaks reduced

Haywood County landowners who get a property tax break for agriculture or foresty will see a reduction in that benefit next year.

A countywide revaluation will hit the books next year, bringing home and land values in line with market values. While residential and commerical property is appraised on a case-by-case basis, those with farmland exceptions have an across-the-board value.

Next year, the value of agricultural land will go from $355 per acre to $495 per acre, up 39 percent, affecting 1,625 parcels. Horticulture will go from  $710 to $1,020 per acre, up 43 percent, affecting 56 parcels.

Those who get tax breaks for foresty will see a much higher increase, however. Not only has the value of the land increased since the last revaluation five years ago, but commissioners voted 3-2 this week to move forestry land into a higher value class, in line with recommendations from the state.

Forestry will go from $80 to $185 per acre, up 131 percent, affecting 532 parcels.

The new values are based on recommendations from the N.C. Department of Revenue, in conjunction with a state committee led by university researchers. Recommendations are given based on studies of soil quality, geography and other considerations, and commissioners then have the final say about what level values will be set.

The soils in Haywood County are ideal for growing trees, making forestry a more profitable operation, and pushing up market value for foresty lands.

Commissioners, however, were at odds over whether to accept the state’s pricier soil class for forestry land.

Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick came out in favor of higher forestry values to keep the tax burden evenly distributed across the community.

“If they [forestry land owners] are not paying a fair amount or paying on a fair value, then that means that someone else is paying more than their fair share,” Kirkpatrick said. “I’m trying to be fair to all the taxpayers, not just the ones who have property in deferred use.”

Commissioner Mark Swanger was also in favor of the higher value, saying he was wary of arbitrarily rejecting well-researched recommendations.

“I would be hesitant to just arbitrarily move around values when the entire document [provided by the state] is based on mathematical statistics and studies and scientific evidence,” Swanger said at the Monday morning meeting.

Commissioners Kevin Ensley and Skeeter Curtis voted against the increase, citing concerns about consistency in taxation year on year and reluctance to increase the tax liability of residents.

Tax Collector David Francis said, however, that the decision would have minimal impact on the county’s coffers or its farmer’s livelihoods.

“This does not amount to a great amount of revenue for the county,” Francis said. “For 600 acres of forestry, you would see approximately $300 in tax increase. To the average farmer, the impact is not going to be that great.”

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