‘A Deep Cultural Divide’

Logging has long been an important part of the region’s economic and cultural landscape. Sawmills and industrial timber operations once blanketed Southern Appalachia, providing jobs and a way of life for many generations of rural communities. 

In the 1990s, the Big Ivy Community organized to stop logging projects. Today, they are organizing again to protect their forest.

While the timber industry in the mountains has declined, Southern forests still support the most intensive logging operations in the country. Forests in the South are being cut at four times the rate of Amazon rain forests and are experiencing some of the highest rates of logging anywhere on earth.

Over 97 percent of logging in Western North Carolina occurs on private land, and those forests continue to be logged heavily. Some rural communities want to see increased logging in the national forest as well, hoping that it will bring more jobs.

“Hunting is disappearing from the mountains. It’s easier to hunt in the flatlands, and there is more game there.” —Jim Gray, member of the Ruffed Grouse Society. 

The Forest Service also wants more logging in the national forest. Its preliminary forest plan proposes logging 4,000 acres per year, a 500 percent increase over current levels. 

Jim Gray, a member of the Ruffed Grouse Society, would like to see that number climb much higher to at least 12,000 acres per year—or around 240,000 acres over the life of the plan. The forest regrowth following timber harvests provides more food and cover for wildlife, says Gray, and it also make the wildlife more accessible for hunters.

“Hunting is disappearing from the mountains. It’s easier to hunt in the flatlands, and there is more game there,” says Gray.

“There are too many mature trees in the national forest,” he adds. “There is not much value in trees after a certain stage because the interior of the tree rots and the timber loses its value.”

Gray supports more timber harvests that create early successional habitat for game species like ruffed grouse, deer, and turkey, as well as other wildlife.

Early successional habitat is the open, cleared area following a disturbance—such as logging, fire, farming, and development. According to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, early successional habitat can include pastures, suburban backyards, old fields, and utility right-of-ways.

Gray acknowledges that there is an abundance of early successional habitat on private land across Western North Carolina, but hunters do not always have access to those lands.

He also believes that the Forest Service should implement more well-managed timber harvests, preferably out of sight of major trails and viewscapes, in part because hunters help pay for it.

“Hunters and anglers pay for the privilege of hunting and fishing through licenses and excise taxes on equipment and ammunition. Other users of the forests do not pay to use the forest. We should get better consideration in return for those fees,” says Gray.

“There are too many mature trees in the national forest. There is not much value in trees after a certain stage because the interior of the tree rots and the timber loses its value.”—Jim Gray

However, hunting licenses and ammunition taxes don’t go to national forests, but to state game agencies. North Carolina’s game agency, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, has been among the most vocal in pushing for more logging and opposing protected areas. At the very beginning of the forest planning process in 2013, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s regional supervisor, Gordon Warburton, delivered a powerpoint presentation that was essentially a playbook for opposing forest protections. Said Warburton, “Our strategy: we have to stand opposed to all new wilderness additions. Period.”

Wilderness is the only Forest Service management area that completely prohibits logging and road building—except in emergencies like wildfire or rescue.

Wilderness areas allow nature to function freely with minimal human management. Wilderness areas are also treasured spaces for recreation, including hiking, camping, paddling, climbing, running, fishing, and hunting.

Hunter and commercial outfitter David Whitmire also doesn’t like the restrictions that wilderness places on logging.

“I can’t hunt where I used to. A lot has changed over the past thirty years. Development. Encroachment. People don’t understand guys walking beside the road with guns,” says Whitmire. “There is a deep cultural divide in the mountains, and the forest plan is revealing that divide.””—David Whitmire, Hunter and Commercial Outfitter

“These woods have always been managed for wildlife. The Cherokee burned the woods to hunt. Logging also helps wildlife,” says Whitmire. “Deer populations are crashing. How low are we going to let their populations go?

In addition, Whitmire worries about the changing demographics, land use, and values in Western North Carolina.

“I can’t hunt where I used to. A lot has changed over the past thirty years. Development. Encroachment. People don’t understand guys walking beside the road with guns,” says Whitmire. “There is a deep cultural divide in the mountains, and the forest plan is revealing that divide.”

As more people have migrated to the mountains, the uses and values of the national forest have shifted dramatically. While hunting and logging were dominant forest uses in the twentieth century, the main use of national forests today is outdoor recreation. According to the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest’s 2014 Assessment, 60 percent of forest users were hikers. Hunters made up only 2.5 percent.

The vast majority of visitors to the Pisgah-Nantahala today are day-hikers, backpackers, mountain bikers, anglers, equestrians, climbers, runners, and other outdoor enthusiasts. These groups generally support stronger protections for the national forest and a more inclusive, 21st century outlook on the uses and values of the Pisgah-Nantahala.

“Our research is unequivocal: visitors are drawn today by the beauty of this area,” said Marla Tambellini, Vice President of Marketing at the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, at a public meeting about the forest plan. “Setting aside natural and wild areas is good for residents today and one of the best legacies we can leave the next generation.”

The Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest is the backbone of Appalachia’s economy, which is driven largely by recreation and tourism. Across Southern Appalachia, recreation provides $90 billion and over 1 million jobs.

“Our region’s health and vitality depend on national forests,” says Sam Evans, an attorney with Southern Environmental Law Center. In addition to the jobs and recreation they provide, national forests in Southern Appalachia provide drinking water to over 11 million people and protect the headwaters of most major rivers. The total value of water flowing from national forestlands amounts to $7.2 billion per year.

National forests store carbon, protect species, filter the air, and provide other key ecosystem services for our region’s health, says Evans. Ecosystem services flowing from national forests are valued between $96 billion and $5.7 trillion annually.

The Forest Service has been slow to respond to the recreation revolution and the shift in forest values. As an agency, it has traditionally prioritized timber sales and logging projects over recreation and conservation. As a result, previous forest plans have become embroiled in conflict and litigation.

The Pisgah-Nantahala Forest planning team is hoping that this plan will be different. Already, the Forest Service has broadened its outreach and expanded public involvement. And it has convened leaders from a variety of user groups to help shape the plan.

“Cooperation is our best hope for this forest plan to succeed,” says Matt McCombs, deputy forest supervisor for National Forests in North Carolina. “In the end, though, the Forest Service will do what we think is best.”

So far, they appear to be making the same mistakes of the past. The preliminary forest plan places over 25,000 acres of old-growth forest in logging-intensive management.

Also open to logging are large sections of popular trail corridors, including the Art Loeb Trail, Benton MacKaye Trail, Bartram Trail, and Mountains to Sea Trail. 

So are Cedar Rock, Tellico Bald, Daniel Ridge, Linville Mountain, Upper Wilson Creek, Chunky Gal, Upper Courthouse Creek, Shope Creek, Upper Santeetlah Creek, Dismal Falls, Siler Bald, parts of Panthertown Valley, and 4,000 acres of old-growth and rare species habitat in Big Ivy. The Appalachian Trail corridor could also be logged.