"You don't increase water quality by cutting trees."
-- ecologist Bob Gale, WNC Alliance
In Asheville, the mere presence of a plan of whatever sort is often enough to foster controversy. Pile on the possibility of logging in the city's drinking-water watersheds, and you have the spark that could ignite a brushfire of public protest.
A proposed forest-management plan for the North Fork and Bee Tree watersheds drew a full house when it was scheduled to be discussed at a June 15 work session. That discussion was postponed due to the absence of both Mayor Charles Worley and Council member Brownie Newman; but at press time, Council was planning to wade into the matter at its July 20 work session, with a vote perhaps coming as soon as the July 27 formal session.
Opponents of the plan say it's vague, insufficient and could open the door to heavy logging in the city's drinking-water watersheds. The plan's author defends it as a steppingstone to improved fire control and healthier forests.
Together, the two watersheds cover about 22,000 acres; a conservation easement prohibits logging at elevations over 3,600 feet.
The plan, drawn up by Wildwood Consulting at the city's request, includes several suggestions for managing the watershed forests. The most controversial proposal calls for some clear-cutting in order to encourage forest regeneration and increase oak populations, create fire lines, and generate revenue to help cover maintenance costs.
Although the plan mentions clearcuts ranging from 0.5 acres to 10 acres, it goes on to note that the actual size of the cuts would be "determined by conditions." But that very vagueness is a source of concern to plan opponents.
"There is no specific information; it's extremely general. If it puts the watershed on a rotation of logging, that could lead to abuse," warns ecologist Bob Gale of the Western North Carolina Alliance (a nonprofit environmental group). "The plan appears as a justification to conduct logging as a resource for the city."
Interim Water Resources Director David Hanks says the current plan is merely a starting point. "This plan is a first step," said Hanks. "This is going to get us going in the right direction, to be revisited later."
Once Council has read and discussed the plan, notes Hanks, "They can tell us how to proceed." But logging for profit is not the goal, he maintains.
"We're certainly not looking at any major logging operations as a staff perspective," he told Xpress. "It's not anything that we have proposed. But we might want to look in the future at some select areas."
If a tree falls in the forest...
That kind of language, however, is precisely what makes logging opponents bristle.
Monroe Gilmour, coordinator of the Swannanoa Valley Alliance for Beauty and Prosperity, has been flooding Council members and city staff with letters and rounding up activists via e-mail alerts.
"They don't have enough information to make a management decision," argues Gilmour, who lives within view of the watershed. In a June 14 letter to City Council, Gilmour worried that the plan might actually be a Trojan horse that would lead to commercial logging.
Gilmour has reason to worry. He remembers what happened in 1987, when the city signed a contract to log the watershed with no public involvement.
"All of a sudden there was a 19-acre clear cut," Gilmour recalls. In response to citizen concerns, the city backed off on plans for further logging after the initial contract (covering 51 acres) was completed.
"Institutional memory is so short. That floored us that they would even consider this," says Gilmour.
But forest plan author Edward Hicks maintains that there are no parallels between what the city's doing now and what was done in the past. City staff, notes Hicks, stressed the importance of preserving water quality.
"They are not interested in a major operation to harvest the watershed. It wasn't addressed like that," said Hicks.
Gale, however, calls that a contradiction, observing, "You don't increase water quality by cutting trees."
A burning issue
The city contacted Wildwood Consulting (which specializes in forest-management issues) after a plane crashed in the watershed in 2002. Long-neglected roads blocked by deadfall impeded rescue workers' access to the scene, and fire officials in both Asheville and Black Mountain worried that clogged roads and thick growth could spell disaster in the event of a fire.
"We don't have any fire lines cut," notes Hanks. "It would be almost to the point of sitting back and watching it burn."
But Gale, a biologist who has worked as an environmental consultant and a wetlands scientist, maintains that the report overstates the risk of fire. In the West, he says, such threats are very real, but in the eastern United States, moisture tends to keep forest fires contained. "They give a scenario that is just apocalyptic. It's not enough of a justification to start logging on the watershed," says Gale.
Hicks agrees that the threat of fire is minimal at the moment.
"Right now, you don't have that danger of a catastrophic fire," he concedes.
But if invasive grasses now growing in the watershed are left unchecked, Hicks predicts, they will spread, creating a potential tinderbox within the next 30 or 40 years.
"You gotta look further down the road than right now. I am identifying a problem and telling them what to do," he continues. "We have a window of opportunity: We can take care of it now. But in 30 years, it could provide fuel that can light a fire that will burn all the way to the Parkway."
One of Hicks' suggestions for addressing the situation, he told Xpress, involves the use of an herbicide called glyphosate (widely known by the brand name Roundup, though it's also marketed under other names).
Online reports by several federal agencies (the Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency) say the herbicide is strongly absorbed into the soil, where it completely degrades after being broken down by microbes. And a Forest Service report maintains that, apart from drinking Roundup straight from the bottle, it is "practically nontoxic" to birds and mammals.
Gale, however, says there is concern in the environmental community about the use of glyphosate near drinking-water sources -- especially the danger of accidental spills. And a number of environmental Web sites report concerns about toxicity to wildlife and microorganisms, habitat destruction, health effects on humans applying the herbicide, and the fact that products containing glyphosate also contain other, more toxic compounds.
Protection or profit?
Hicks defended the plan against the charges made in Gilmour's June 14 letter to City Council.
"This is certainly not a boilerplate plan," said Hicks, adding that he plans to do a more detailed survey once the city gives the go-ahead. But to do a more time-consuming and expensive study when the city might still back off, he explained, is "overkill."
Despite Hicks' and Hanks' assurances, however, at least one City Council member has done more than hint at the possibility of logging the watershed. At a Feb. 9 meeting of the Regional Water Authority board, Joe Dunn (one of two Council appointees to the Authority) suggested that logging old growth could generate revenue for the city. "It's going to take political guts, but it's time," Dunn declared.
Meanwhile, logging opponents maintain that there are other ways the city could get money from the watershed.
The city, notes Gale, could sell its timber rights (potentially worth millions, he predicts) to a conservation group that wants to ensure that the property isn't logged. Groups like the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy help write grants and secure private funding for such exchanges.
SAHC Executive Director Carl Silverstein says that while his organization may not weigh in on whether or not to log (cities such as Boston have successfully harvested timber from their watersheds for years, he points out), the Conservancy stands ready to help if the city did decide to sell the logging rights in order to protect the watershed.
Last year, Silverstein and the Conservancy helped secure grants that preserved the Canton watershed, and deals with Montreat and Woodfin are in the works, he said.
"The city could avoid a huge controversy, which I think this is going to be," Gale predicts. "And we wouldn't have to revisit this every 10-15 years."
[Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Mountain Xpress.]