MountainTrue’s Public Lands Biologist, Josh Kelly, next to a “temporary road” built in 2012 in Nantahala National Forest.
In August, Forest Service staff for Nantahala National Forest made their final decision on the Buck Project. As you may remember, the Forest Service had selected Alternative B as its proposed alternative in April, and we called on you to oppose this project because it would have harvested 845 acres of timber and constructed 9.1 miles of new road – much of that in sensitive places like existing old-growth forests, Outstanding Resource Waters, Natural Heritage Areas, and the Chunky Gal potential Wilderness addition.
In response, the Forest Service created a new alternative for the project, Alternative G. In the positives column, Alternative G includes understory thinning and controlled burns in the Buck Creek Serpentine Barrens. It also calls for watershed repairs in areas where old roads, culverts and infrastructure are causing erosion and blocking the passage of aquatic organisms. But unfortunately, Alternative G still proposes to build 8.9 miles of road and to harvest timber in sensitive areas.
Here’s where MountainTrue stands on the Forest Service’s new alternative:
- We support Alternative G’s inclusion of water quality work and activities in the Serpentine Barrens.
- While we welcome the reduction of timber harvest by 50 acres to protect old-growth forest and a North Carolina natural heritage area, as well as the .2 miles of reduced road construction, these are very small changes around the margins. This project still does tremendous harm to wild places, soil and water, old-growth forest, and goes against the wishes of hundreds of people that commented on the project.
- Alternative G would still build new roads and harvest timber in one of the wildest places in North Carolina – the Chunky Gal Addition to Southern Nantahala Wilderness. At over 7,000 acres, this is the largest potential addition to an existing Wilderness in North Carolina, and one of the wildest, most remote, and ecologically healthy places in Nantahala National Forest. Proceeding with Alternative G would surely disqualify thousands of acres of Chunky Gal from management as either Backcountry or Wilderness for at least 20 years. This at a time when there is broad public support for protecting the area in the new Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Management Plan.
- The 8.9 miles of road construction will have considerable risks for erosion, landslides, and the spread of invasive plants. The Forest Service has over 2,200 miles of roads in Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, yet they want to build more in the wildest remaining places. They are proposing a 10-mile roundtrip haul and 2 miles of new road construction to access just 50 acres of timber on Kitty Ridge. The new road would cross rock outcrops and extremely steep slopes, which increases the risk for erosion and landslides. The value of the timber being accessed is likely to be less than the cost of constructing this “temporary” road!
- In compartment 110, the Forest Service still proposes to build a 14-16 foot-wide “temporary” road paralleling an unnamed tributary of upper Buck Creek. Both Buck Creek and this tributary are known to be native brook trout streams that are already under stress from non-native trout. Road construction will further jeopardize this fragile brook trout population.
- Alternative G still contains existing old-growth forest with trees over 200-years-old in at least three locations. The Forest Service claims to be working with MountainTrue to exclude these areas from harvest, but still has them mapped inside harvest areas. The simplest solution would have been to exclude those areas from the decision to harvest. What happens if and when there is a disagreement about the location and boundaries of existing old-growth? The decision makes no promises in this regard.
MountainTrue continues to push for a modified Alternative D, which the Forest Service has acknowledged would meet the purpose and need for the Buck Project. We will object to the Buck Project, as this is our last recourse short of going to federal court. The Forest Service has not been responsive to our concerns on recent problematic decisions in the Mossy Oak and Southside Projects, and does not seem inclined to fix the problems with the Buck Project either.
It’s also come to our attention that those who commented on the Buck Project through MountainTrue’s comment portal received a message from Steverson Moffat, NEPA Planning Team Leader for the Forest Service. While we’re glad that the Forest Service is taking the time to engage with people who comment on their projects, we have a very different take on the Buck Project than what Moffat’s message shared. You can read our response here.
The Forest Service proposed the very flawed Buck Project in early 2018. They have now made changes around the margins of the problem they created and called this a balanced compromise. Any compromise that relies on compromising the health of the land and water is unacceptable to MountainTrue.
Josh Kelly, Public Lands Biologist for MountainTrue
MountainTrue’s Public Lands Biologist, Josh Kelly, next to a “temporary road” built by the Forest Service in 2012 in Nantahala National Forest.
This May, MountainTrue spread the word and made a call for public comments against the Forest Service’s preferred alternative for the Buck Project, which we believe is one of the worst timber cutting proposals in the history of Nantahala National Forest.
It came to our attention that many of the people who commented on the project through our online action alert received a message from Steverson Moffat, NEPA Planning Team Leader for the Forest Service, and they were curious as to what to make of it and how to respond. While we’re glad that the Forest Service is taking the time to engage with people who comment on their projects, we have a very different interpretation of the Buck Project than what was shared in the Forest Service’s message.
In the Forest Service’s response (which is included below), it is clear that the Forest Service sees a “need” to create more young forest in the Buck Project Area for disturbance-dependent wildlife species like the ruffed grouse. Not surprisingly, the majority of the logging projects in Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests use exactly the same justification. It is true that scrub, shrub, woodland (an open forest), and grassland habitats and the species that depend on them are in trouble because natural processes like fire, floods, and large-scale grazing have been interrupted or destroyed by a largely developed landscape.
Sustainable timber harvest can be used as a surrogate for these suppressed natural processes to provide habitat for declining species; however, we don’t believe that we must sacrifice the last wild areas of our National Forests and habitat for sensitive rare species to make way for open habitat. Our National Forests are large enough for both values, but only some areas are suitable for each.
As the Forest Service notes, there are over 20,000 acres of public land in the Buck Project Area. What is not noted is that this is one of the wildest places left in the Appalachians. Over 400 acres of timber harvest can be attained there without cutting existing old-growth, habitat for rare species, or building roads into areas that are ideal for backcountry management. A similar amount could be harvested from the developed footprint of the area every 10-20 years in perpetuity. To get at more will require road building into the Chunky Gal potential Wilderness Addition and cutting in sensitive habitats.
One of the biggest concerns we have with Mr. Moffat’s letter is the claim that the proposed road building and logging won’t affect the status of Chunky Gal in the new forest plan. Building miles of roads and cutting 20-acre blocks of this area will decrease the Buck Project Area’s natural qualities, making it much less likely to be recommended as Wilderness or Backcountry in the new forest plan. The planning rule literally uses “apparent naturalness” as the standard for whether areas qualify for Wilderness and Backcountry management. If the Chunky Gal area isn’t managed as Backcountry in the new plan, it leaves the area open to development with road systems in the future.
The Forest Service also makes the assertion that temporary roads are “an attempt to tread as lightly as possible on the landscape while meeting management objectives.” In fact, “temporary roads” are no more temporary than any other logging roads. They would need to be 14-20 feet wide in order to support the large equipment and trucks needed to harvest hundreds of acres of forest. These roads would be temporary in name only, and would persist for decades on the ground.
Furthermore, Forest Service regulations state that for a road to be categorized as “temporary” it can only be used once. Some of these “temporary” roads have already been used in two other timber sales in the past 20 years by the Forest Service. If a road will knowingly be used repeatedly, it is required to be added to the official Forest Service system. The problem is, that requires maintenance money that the Forest Service doesn’t have. If roads aren’t maintained, erosion into streams is a significant hazard. The Forest Service currently has an $8.4 billion backlog for needed road maintenance nationwide. When the Forest Service disregards its own regulations in order to get out of road maintenance requirements at the expense of water quality, it’s fair to call that an accounting trick. Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests need to maintain the 2,300 miles of road they already have before building new ones.
The message also states that “the Forest Service specialists who are tasked with managing the Nantahala National Forest take seriously the responsibility entrusted to them by the American people and strive to balance the needs of the ecosystem with the often conflicting desires of the public.”
The Forest Service has every opinion inside its ranks that you find in the American public at large. There are many Forest Service employees who disagree with aspects of the Buck Project as proposed. To frame the proposal for this project, which would develop the area with miles of roads and hundreds of acres of logging, as being consistent with the needs of the ecosystem is arguable at best.
MountainTrue believes the solution is to find the places where society’s need for wood, wildlife’s need for scrubby habitat, and the conditions of the forest align so that timber harvest makes sense at all three levels. That’s why we support a modified Alternative D that does not build new roads, stays out of existing old-growth forest, and does not harm natural heritage areas.
It is clear at the local and the national level that the Forest Service wants to cut more timber. The way to accomplish that is not to harm the fantastic biodiversity of the Blue Ridge Mountains by developing the last wild places and cutting areas identified as biological gems like the disputed parts of the Buck Project. We can achieve all our goals in a much more environmentally sound way by opting for a modified Alternative D.
Original Message From The Forest Service
You’re receiving this message because you commented on the Tusquitee Ranger District’s Buck Project during the notice and comment period in April and May of 2019. Under normal circumstances, you would have received this reply within about two weeks of the end of the comment period, but I had some family business that took me out of town for a few days in mid and late-May and, well, things got a little backed up.
I have taken the liberty of attaching the Draft Environmental Assessment (EA) to this message that was (and still is) available for review during the N&C period. Maps of the project area and proposed treatments, which are too megabyte-rich for email, can be found by following this link and clicking the “Analysis” tab: https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=50345. I strongly encourage you to read the EA because it addresses many of the issues that you have raised.
To directly respond to specific points and concerns most of you shared with us in your correspondence:
- Everyone who works for the National Forests in North Carolina also loves and appreciates our public lands and the natural values they provide, including those listed in your messages: clean water, wildlife habitat, hunting, fishing, recreation, solitude, nature study, and much more.
- Yes, the Buck Project analysis area is part of an iconic Appalachian landscape, and needs our care. Referencing Chapter 1 of the EA,
- There are currently 111 acres of forest in the 0 – 10 year age class, and 18 acres in the 11 – 20 year age class. This habitat type, once too abundant in the wake of extractive logging in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is now rare across the Nantahala National Forest (EA at page 7). Young forest stands, those 20 years and younger, typically, provide critical age class and structural diversity that provide critical habitat for a wide variety of non-game and game wildlife species that require interior forest early successional habitat (ESH) to complete some, or all, of their life cycles (please see the references cited and hyperlinked on pages 6 and 7 of the EA). The Forest Service is balancing this need for ESH while also conserving older forest stands, which also provide important habitat for non-game and game wildlife.
- Currently, 14,222 acres of the Buck Analysis area are 81 years and older; by the completion of the proposed project, this total will increase to 17,811 acres, or 86% of the analysis area.
- Care has been taken to locate treatments in areas that do not contain habitat for rare plants or, where work is proposed near rare plant populations, buffers and exclusion zones have been established to maintain appropriate habitat conditions (EA at pages 35 and 36).
- The Forest Service has evaluated the proposed actions on areas that have been identified as lands that may be suitable for wilderness and has determined that project activities would have no impacts to the wilderness characteristics of the Boteler and Chunky Gal inventory areas (EA at pages 28 and 29).
- Potential impacts of temporary road prisms and other project activities on soil and water resources are presented in sections 3.2.1, 3.6, and 3.7 of the EA.
- Proposing temporary roads is not, from our perspective, an “accounting trick”, but rather an attempt to tread as lightly as possible on the landscape while meeting management objectives.
Other topics addressed in the EA include the direct, indirect, and cumulative effects to management indicator species, communities, and special habitats; proposed, endangered, and threatened species; regionally sensitive and forest concern species; old growth forest; air resources; timber resources; heritage resources; recreation resources; scenery; social and economic considerations; road management; and climate change.
The Forest Service specialists who are tasked with managing the Nantahala National Forest take seriously the responsibility entrusted to them by the American people and strive to balance the needs of the ecosystem with the often conflicting desires of the public. We are currently reviewing all comments on the Buck Project and anticipate releasing a draft decisional EA and draft Decision Notice later this summer. You will be receiving those documents by email when they are released for the 45 day objection period. Until then, should you have any additional questions, please feel free to contact me.
Join MountainTrue for our biggest party of the year.
MountainTrue members from all over our region gather every October to celebrate outstanding volunteers and advocates, vote on new board members, and connect with others who are passionate about protecting our region’s forests and rivers and creating healthier communities. This October 23, we hope you’ll join our Annual Gathering at New Belgium Brewing to celebrate another great year of protecting the places we share and our recent merger with the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition.
Stronger Together: MountainTrue’s Annual Gathering
October 23, 6-9 pm
New Belgium Brewing Company
21 Craven St., Asheville, NC 28806
RSVP through the ticket form below.
This year’s Annual Gathering is made possible with the help of the law firm of Davis & Whitlock Environmental Law. Together with New Belgium, their generous support helps us keep the costs of the Annual Gathering low – we just ask that your membership is current in order to attend. (Not sure if your membership is current? Check for your name here.)
Local favorite Gnarly Fingers will play during the merger celebration event on August 17th. From left to right, band members are Brian Kruger, Tom Edwards, Pat List, Joann Holoman, and Keith Layton.
For Immediate Release
Karim Olaechea, MountainTrue Communications Director
C: 415-535-9004, E: firstname.lastname@example.org
Callie Moore, MountainTrue Western Regional Director
C: 828-837-5414, E: email@example.com
Renewal: Celebrating the Merger of Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition and MountainTrue
Brasstown, N.C. — MountainTrue invites everyone to a celebration of its recent merger with the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition (HRWC). The event will be held at the Staurolite Farm Barn in the Trout Cove community of Brasstown, NC on Saturday, August 17, 5:30-9:00 p.m.
Long-time members and supporters of HRWC will join with staff and local members of MountainTrue for food, games, music, dancing and fun. Program coordinator, Tony Ward, will offer a tour of one of the Coalition’s oldest stream restoration projects, Trout Cove Branch, and live music will be provided by local favorite Gnarly Fingers.
The merger represents a renewal of MountainTrue’s roots in far Western North Carolina, as well as a renewal of the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition’s programs. This event is a great opportunity to learn more about MountainTrue and its current and future work. Admission is free, but please RSVP online at: https://mountaintrue.org/event/21549/ or call 828-837-5414.
# # #
Callie Moore, Western Regional Director
Callie served as Director of the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition for 17 years until the organization merged with MountainTrue in 2019. She has a Master’s Degree in Water Resources from Indiana University and is a graduate of Western Carolina University’s (WCU) Environmental Health Program. Before HRWC, Callie was a river basin planner for the NCDENR, Division of Water Quality, during which time she worked extensively in several WNC river basins including the Hiwassee, Little Tennessee, and Savannah. Other prior work experience includes water quality monitoring, sediment/erosion control compliance inspections, and environmental education for the Tennessee Dept. of Environment & Conservation and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Callie is a graduate of the Institute for Georgia Environmental Leadership, Leadership Chatuge and she served on the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation Community Leadership Council.
Although Callie grew up in middle Tennessee, throughout her life her family vacationed at their home at Lake Junaluska. It was then and while at WCU, that she developed a rich knowledge and love of western North Carolina and its rivers.
She and husband, Philip, currently live with cat, Tessa, in the Tusquitee Community of Clay County, NC. She enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreation activities in her spare time, as well as making hand-stamped greeting cards and helping out around Moore Farm. In addition to being involved in the community through her church, Callie is a member of the Rotary Club of Clay County and serves on the board of the Unaka Chapter of Trout Unlimited.
In our last report, we updated you about the status of several important Western North Carolina conservation projects included in the state budget negotiations in Raleigh.
Recently, lawmakers gave final approval to their version of the state’s $24 billion spending plan. Governor Cooper vetoed the legislature’s proposed budget last Friday, as was widely expected.
While we hope Governor Cooper and legislative leaders will come to a resolution on a final budget soon, we are grateful that the General Assembly included a number of important investments for WNC in their version. These include:
- $200,000 to allow the NC Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ) to investigate and clean up hazardous spills from unknown sources. When an angler alerted our Watauga Riverkeeper to a fish kill and sheen on the Watauga River two summers ago, state regulators were unable to respond immediately because the origin of the spill was unclear. Responsibility for such spills falls largely to NC DEQ’s Underground Storage Tank cleanup program, whose funding is restricted to contamination that is clearly associated with an underground storage tank. This additional funding will allow the Department to respond more quickly and to protect North Carolina’s aquatic life and rivers, and the tourism and recreation industries that depend on them.
- $150,000 to improve public access to a popular recreation area in the Green River Game Lands in Henderson and Polk Counties. Access to the Green River is of great importance to the paddling and angling communities, but the parking area for an iconic section of the river is under a temporary lease agreement that can be terminated at any time – putting recreational access to the river at risk. This appropriation will support and leverage further grant funding for permanent public access and trail improvement projects that protect the Green.
- $100,000 to provide state funding to monitor popular WNC rivers and streams for E. coli and other pollutants that can make people sick. WNC river recreation areas in the French Broad and other watersheds routinely fail EPA standards for E. coli, especially after it rains. This funding will help inform the public of when it’s safe to swim.
- $100,000 to expand fishing and camping tourism with improvements to the French Broad River Paddle Trail in Transylvania, Henderson, Buncombe and Madison Counties. This investment will allow paddlers and others to more easily and safely access more than 150 miles of the French Broad, and will bring new economic development opportunities to communities in small towns along the river.
- $100,000 to improve fish habitat and hunting and fishing access by providing matching funds to remove the Ward’s Mill Dam on the Watauga River in Watauga County. Removing the dam will result in 140 more miles of connected stream and improve free-flowing aquatic habitat for species like the Eastern Hellbender and the Green Floater Mussel.
- $100,000 to expand camping and fishing tourism with investments in the Watauga River Paddle Trail in Watauga County. The Watauga is one of WNC’s most beautiful rivers, and this funding will expand public access and recreation opportunities.
This funding represents months of legislative advocacy across our region and in Raleigh by a team of MountainTrue staff and volunteers – thanks to all of you who have supported these efforts with your time and donations. Thanks also to the WNC legislators who worked with us – including Senators Chuck Edwards and Deanna Ballard, as well as Representatives Chuck McGrady, Josh Dobson, Brian Turner and Kevin Corbin.
We also hope you’ll mark your calendars for a community discussion of MountainTrue’s legislative work, which will happen at the Wedge at Foundation on July 17 at 6:30 PM. Our lobbyist, Rob Lamme, will share his main takeaways from the legislative session and answer questions on how to impact environmental issues in Raleigh from our mountains. Until then, thank you again for your support!
The legislature’s months-long debate of the new state budget is coming to an end, and there are some key Western North Carolina conservation investments at stake this year.
The budget process for the state’s biennial (AKA two-year) budget began in March, when Governor Roy Cooper delivered his proposed budget to the General Assembly. The House of Representatives followed with weeks of budget meetings that culminated in approval of its version of the state’s $24 billion spending plan. In recent weeks, the Senate has developed its own version of the budget.
Now comes “conference” – the process the House and Senate use to reconcile their budgets and send a final version to the Governor for signature or veto.
Over the past few months, MountainTrue has been working with lawmakers to support a number of conservation projects that are now being discussed in conference. Specifically we are asking lawmakers to support funding to:
Allow the NC Department of Environmental Quality to investigate and clean up hazardous spills from unknown sources – as occurred recently in the Watauga River (included in the Senate budget, $200,000 one-time funding)
Improve public access to a popular recreation area in the Green River Game Lands in Henderson and Polk counties (included in the Senate budget, $150,000)
Provide state funding to monitor popular WNC rivers and streams for E. coli and other pollutants that can make people sick (included in the Senate budget, $100,000)
Expand fishing and camping tourism with improvements to the French Broad River Paddle Trail in Transylvania, Henderson, Buncombe and Madison counties (included in the Senate budget, $100,000)
Improve fish habitat and hunting and fishing access by providing matching funds to remove the Ward’s Mill Dam on the Watauga River in Watauga County (Included in the Senate budget, $100,000)
Expand camping and fishing tourism with investment in the Watauga River Paddle Trail in Watauga County (Included in the Senate budget, $100,000)
MountainTrue – and our region – is fortunate to have a number of lawmakers who have been willing to support these projects. Thank you to Representatives Chuck McGrady, Josh Dobson, Kevin Corbin and Brian Turner for your help. On the Senate side, Senators Chuck Edwards and Deanna Ballard have been immensely helpful.
MountainTrue staff will travel to Raleigh next week for the last of this year’s monthly lobbying trips to support these budget items. Look for an update in the coming weeks about our trip, the final budget and its investments in Western North Carolina.