The Transylvania Times -

Concerns Over Courthouse Project Well Founded


November 20, 2017

Courtesy Photo

Skid steer roads like this produce expected results, an extremely muddy Courthouse Creek.

There is a spectrum of beliefs in our society about forests. On one end of the spectrum is the belief that without human intervention forests deteriorate and that all forests need tending by humans. The extreme version of this human-centric, interventionist view is that all forests are improved with the intervention of chainsaws and heavy equipment. On the other end of the spectrum is the belief that forests and other ecosystems are self-sustaining and can survive independent of humans. The extreme version of this forest-centric, protectionist view is that any human intervention in forests only does harm. Most of us fall in between these two extremes and have an intuitive sense of which end of the spectrum we are closer to. The wisest among us know when and where human intervention can benefit ecosystems and also understand that, "if it ain't broke..."

In 2013, the revision of the current Forest Plan for Nantahala and Pisgah national forests began under some poor circumstances. The U.S. Forest Service had spent the previous two years working on a timber sale known as the Courthouse Vegetation Management Project just below Devil's Courthouse in the headwaters of the North Fork of the French Broad. For those that aren't familiar with the area, Courthouse Valley is one of the wettest places in eastern North American, it has an abundance of steep terrain, it has great cultural significance, and excellent habitat for all manner of critters that crawl, fly and swim.

The Courthouse Project originally proposed more than 450 acres of logging and move over nine miles of road construction in this sensitive area. To make a long story short, MountainTrue and many other individuals and organizations had major concerns with the potential impacts from erosion and the loss of very high quality forest that at a minimum 'ain't broke.' Other folks saw it as an opportunity to create some much needed habitat for deer and grouse - and from that view what would be so bad about loggers making some money off the timber in the process?

Eventually, comments by concerned citizens and an administrative appeal (which, to bust a myth does not mean going to court) by MountainTrue resulted in a compromise that removed about 100 acres and seven miles of road construction from the project. Some very sensitive areas remained in the timber sale, but, from our perspective, preventing the worst of the potential impacts was better than preventing none of it. The Forest Service was begrudging about the compromise, and some folks on the utilitarian side of the spectrum accused those of us with concerns as "selfish." Key to our concerns was the potential for erosion and landslides in the area. We documented two landslides from timber sales in the 1990's, one of them 900 feet long. Soil maps prepared by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) showed that the majority of the area had an erosion hazard for logging and road building of "severe."

Fast forward to 2017, and the first 46 acres of the Courthouse Project have been cut. The result was a "critical failure," in Forest Service speak, of the protective measures meant to keep silt out of streams. Local outdoorsman Nick Holshouser documented large amounts of silt flowing off the skid roads into the North Fork of the French Broad River throughout the summer. To the Forest Service's great credit, they have had none of the reluctance to fix the problem that they had in taking the original concerns seriously. They have put up water bars and seeded down all the roads and log landings. The sediment problem is so severe that the USFS will be re-contouring all the skid roads back to the original slope to prevent ongoing erosion. After further review by the USFS it was determined that all of the areas that created a concern great enough to object to the timber sale, and several additional areas, are too risky to log.

Ultimately, I believe MountainTrue and other groups were correct in trying to prevent damage to soil and water in this special area. And, ultimately, what is being implemented is much better than what was planned. The lasting tragedy of the Courthouse Project is a missed opportunity for folks from the full spectrum of conservation values to work together to create a non-objectionable project. When I look around, I think that those who appreciate places where nature is doing just fine on its own can work with those that want to cut more timber and grow more deer and grouse on Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest. The answer, in my opinion, is to zoom out and see the big picture, and not try to force timber harvest into sensitive areas like upper Courthouse Creek.

Looking ahead to the new Forest Plan, MountainTrue has identified more than 450,000 acres across Nantahala and Pisgah national forests that are good candidates to restore damaged ecosystems and improve habitat for deer, turkey, elk, grouse and song birds that specialize on young forest. All this while producing significantly more timber for local mills than is being produced today.

Courtesy Photo

The sediment makes its way into the creek.

The area we are promoting already has more than 2,000 miles of Forest Service roads, has a wide range of elevations, and only 14 percent of the known rare species habitat that makes our area unique and whose presence slows down the planning of timber projects.

Why not focus on timber harvest there and try to maintain some of those roads? My hope for the future is that folks on the interventionist side of the conservation spectrum work together with folks on the protectionist side of the spectrum on that huge swath of our National Forest where we agree. And as we continue to work on the Forest Plan Revision hopefully, we will all agree to "first do no harm."

Kelly is a public lands biologist for MountainTrue, a local environmental nonprofit that does work in Transylvania County.


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