The Transylvania Times -

Official: Davidson River's Health At Risk

 

September 25, 2017



A presentation and discussion on the health of the Davidson River and Pisgah National Forest, in general, were held during the recent Pisgah Chapter of Trout Unlimited meeting.

Patrick Weaver, who works for the Fish and Wildlife Commission and teaches classes at the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education, led the presentation.

The Pisgah Chapter was chartered in 1969 and is dedicated to cold-water conservation, with nearly 400 members serving Transylvania, Henderson and Polk counties.

In the late 1700s, Benjamin Davidson acquired property near the current entrance to Pisgah National Forest, which Weaver described as a highly sought after commodity due to the river’s cleanliness.

Weaver said he found old newspaper clippings that said it took three weeks of steady rain for the river to even turn brown.

“There were grist mills in the Sycamore Flats area,” he said. “What you see now and what you think is pristine forest, is not the way it was. The whole river corridor all the way up to Looking Glass Creek was developed.”

Weaver described homesteads, factories and farms, and that the river corridor provided access to the raw materials used to tan leather.

“One of the late comers was the Ecusta plant, founded by Harry Strauss in 1939,” he said. “It employed 1,330 workers, and during the Great Depression it had an annual payroll of over a $1 million. There were schools, libraries and many things associated with that factory.”

Weaver said he moved to the area about the time the plant shut down in 2002.

“The reason they were there was clean water,” he said. “They needed such clean water that when the guys at the hatchery would salt the road and the bridge, they would get a phone call two hours later from production in the Ecusta factory complaining about salt showing up in the factory.”

The river is, of course, well known for Fly Fishing and the Bobby N. Setzer State Fish Hatchery, which was built in the late 1950s and, Weaver said, has changed very little but is “aging out.”

In Western North Carolina there are more than 140 rivers that are designated trout streams, and the hatchery stocks all of those rivers with northern brook trout. Southern Appalachian brook trout cannot be raised in captivity. When they are put in a tank they stop eating and die, Weaver said, and are typically found at about 4,500 feet.

Trout fishing is big business in the state, with the previously reported annual impact of $383 million being surpassed, he said.

Weaver noted the increase of visitors to the area’s public lands. The national forest visitor center sees more than 131,000 people a year, Sliding Rock gets about 350,000 visits and the Wildlife Center averages about 105,000. Weaver said the number of visitors to the Wildlife Education Center only includes those who go into the building and not those who just park and head into the woods.

Weaver said that on a busy Saturday the Education Center spends $700 on just paper products for the bathrooms. Those expenses are paid by hunter and fishermen license fees, he said.

Forest and River Ecology

The more than 500,000 acres of Pisgah National Forest includes a mix of spruce pine, mountain cove habitat and mountain stream habitat.

“We don’t have a lot of meadows,” Weaver said. “We need more. We have a lot of species suffering for that. We have over 70 kinds of mammals that live in Western North Carolina, and the highest concentration of bears east of the Mississippi.”

Conservation officers, he said, are spending most of their time dealing with bear incidents. Weaver said the bears are overpopulated.

“If the population doesn’t come down, they will develop disease,” he said. “We have too many bears.”

Weaver mentioned a trail camera he set up captured one deer and 24 bears.

“It’s scary how few deer there are,” he said. “In the last three years, I have seen five in the forest.”

Weaver said the public should also be concerned about the hellbender, the large salamander that lives in local waterways. The hellbender is an indicator species that breathes through its skin, and by studying them, researchers can understand the river’s health.

“We are not seeing as many,” he said. “Sedimentation is the biggest cause of their decline.”

As previously reported, the hatchery has to dig itself out from the large amount of sediment coming down Grogan Creek.

“The hatchery never used to have to do this,” Weaver said. “They have to dig out their tanks and the pools on a regular basis. Our intake was clogged this year. There has been a huge increase in sediment in the last three years.”

Weaver also discussed the decline of the bat population. Each year, a bat study is conducted on the Davidson. The spinner fall insect and others come to the river around 3 a.m., the same time the bats come out.

“We used to catch hundreds of bats in our mist nets,” Weaver said. “This year we caught seven. It sounded like someone was standing on the bridge pouring pea gravel into the water because there were so many trout eating the mayflies, but we only caught seven bats. All that is important.”

Concerns

Historically, there have been two major problems on the Davidson River. Acid rain caused by the production practices of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) lowered the buffering capacity, causing major problems on the Davidson.

“Twenty five years ago, the state of North Carolina sued them,” Weaver said. “The state won the case, and TVA put scrubbers on their chimneys.”

The high acidic levels resulted in low pH counts that were near fatal to all living organisms in the river. The pH is a numeric scale used to specify the acidity of water. Pure water is neutral, at pH 7.

The death of the hemlocks is also impacting river acidity.

“The hemlocks are releasing organic acid into the water, and when it rains the environment runs out of buffering ions, and it can’t tolerate the load anymore,” Weaver said. “The good news, the pH is climbing up. We hit the bottom 25 years ago and there is no more buffer. The only exception is Looking Glass Creek. When it rains, the pH will get down into the 5.4s and nobody knows why.”

Large clear cutting is also still impacting the forest’s health.

“These woods were cut in 1917,” said Weaver. “There was a newspaper clipping of mud slurry coming downriver with dead trout all in it. We are starting to see erosion lead to silt runoff and sedimentation. We have overuse, habitat destruction and monoculture. These trees are a hundred years old. We do not have early succession, and we do not have any late succession. The forest is not healthy, and our wildlife population is starting to suffer. We have 35 invasive species in the area and lower rainfall amounts.”

Weaver said that for the past several years there have been lower rainfall amounts and increased water temperatures.

“The forest is too dense,” he said. “It needs to be opened up. Deer have to walk a loop that takes them 20 to 30 days to find enough food, and a normal pattern for them is four to seven days. Where deer will walk in their core area, about 92 acres, they should be able to find enough food there. But the food source is not there for them.”

Weaver said the hemlock woolly adelgid, an invasive species, killed 90 percent of hemlocks in the forest, and Weaver doesn’t believe it’s going to be fixed.

“That’s why our streams are warming,” he said. “The hemlocks shaded the creeks and rivers. The hemlocks are being replaced by the rhododendrons, which are not the best options for shading those rivers. They don’t hold in the soil as well.”

Weaver implored local anglers to not fish when the water temperature is more than 70 degrees.

“I don’t care how good you are, you cannot catch fish and release them and have them survive,” he said.

A member of the audience asked if there was any way to publicize the water temperature.

Weaver said he puts up signs, but the public tears them down. Displaying the water temperature at the hatchery has not been an option because it is expensive, according to Weaver. He said there is discussion about posting water temperatures on the hatchery’s Facebook page.

The loss of riparian habitat to camping and other people using the edge of streams are other blows to the river’s health. The riparian environment is that 25 to 50 foot buffer along the stream.

“The riparian environment is the buffer for the river,” Weaver said. “If you take away that riparian environment, when it rains, sediment goes into that water. We are losing the filter rapidly.”

Earlier this year, Trout Unlimited performed restoration work below the fish hatchery, closing down some campsites and corralling hikers into a more sustainable path. Weaver also noted that he cleans up trash every week at the sites.

An audience member said that in her neighborhood she has used the Muddy Waters app, which alerts environmental officials to runoff and erosion issues.

“It really works,” she said. “Within three days, officials came out and there was a silt fence installed. If you see this, get the app. I was impressed how fast it was taken care of.”

The Balancing Act

An audience member asked that if when the Forest Service destroys campsites, if they destroy the fire ring. Weaver said they do, but the fire rings keep coming back.

Another audience member asked if there was any discussion about closing the Forest Service Road (FSR) 475 from the fish hatchery to Balsam Grove to limit sedimentation.

Weaver said there has been some discussion, but there are other options, such as paving, which would help.

“There are issues with mountain bike trails that are next to rivers,” he said. “As far as (FSR 475), we have had a million increase in people, and every time they drive down that road they loosen the gravel and dirt.

“The Forest Service is losing money. They can only fix the roads in the worst shape. Paving that road would solve some of the problem. Then, they could turn the maintenance of the road over to the DOT.”

Weaver said that muddy water should not be coming off the upper Davidson River, along the Daniel Ridge trail, which he described as a popular mountain bike trail. He said there is also a lot of camping there that is close to the creek. Weaver said he just doesn’t have an answer.

An audience member asked that if overcrowding and overuse is such an issue, why would there be advertising in places across the country to come visit Pisgah?

Weaver said the Forest Service is not advertising, and that they are complaining relentlessly about it.

“Things have evolved,” he said. “When mountain bikes first gained in popularity, they had no idea of the impact they would have. You have got to understand, I mountain bike, climb, kayak, fish, hunt. But you have to understand that just because it’s Pisgah Forest, it doesn’t give you the right to go anywhere in the forest.”

Pisgah National Forest is by far the most visited national forest in the country and has more than 400 commercial permits.

An audience member suggested that campers along the river and other places where they are camping illegally should be fined. Weaver said that there is just one law enforcement agent on the entire Pisgah Ranger district.

A local fishing guide asked about enforcement.

“We have fish and wildlife guys who spend their whole day patrolling Lake Toxaway, which is a private lake, instead of patrolling these public areas. How does that affect all of us who pay for trout and fishing licenses off public land, but these people in a private lake are benefitting for that,” he said.

N.C. Wildlife Officer Michael Rising said in a follow up phone call that wildlife officers patrol all the waters, and that all waters are public.

“The waters of the lake are public waters, but because (the Lake Toxaway Association) have a POA and own all the land around it, then that’s how they are able to control the access, but people come from out of state that rent a home or condo on the lake and they go fishing, and we patrol for boating safety,” he said.

Weaver said that funds to pay for law enforcement come from license sales.

“Statistically, sportsmen generate $8 million a day that go to conservation, through the Pittman Roberson Act, which puts an 11 percent excise tax on all hunting equipment, and the Sport Restoration Act, which puts an 11 percent excise tax on all fishing equipment,” he said. “All that money pays for restoration work, and it includes my salary, the salary for conservation officers and their gas. There are 10 million fewer anglers than at our high point in the ’90s. Hunters are down to 5 percent of the population. The funds for conservation are dwindling, and our conservation officers are put on a mileage restriction because they don’t have enough money to pay for the gas.”

An audience member asked why the mountain bikers and the backpack companies aren’t taxed.

“We gave them that option in the ’90s and they refused,” said Weaver. “There’s no money. There’s only one law enforcement on the whole forest. You think he has time to drive around and write tickets to people camping on the rivers? He’s so busy writing traffic tickets and assisting with accidents that he can’t get off the road. There’s just one guy for 1.1 million acres.”

Weaver said he gave the presentation to raise awareness about sediment and other issues impacting the river and forest.

“We can make a difference,” he said. “There’s nothing that says we can’t start working towards creating the studies to get the money from Congress. If we can produce the data, we can start getting the money. Writing letters to your congressman isn’t going to get a lot of results.”

Weaver said the Forest Service is interested in regulations that say guides can’t lead trips if the water is over 70 degrees.

“They’d also like to get (FSR 475) paved to limit sedimentation in the river,” he said. “You know how much it’s going to cost? It’s going to cost $1 million to pave that road and they don’t have it.”

Other options include shutting down and rerouting some of the problem trails that are directly dumping sediment into the river, such as the Cat Gap Loop, Butter Gap and Long Branch trails.

Weaver said the Forest Service generates a lot of money from permits, such as summer camp use, mountain bike races, running events, mountain bike guide services, eco-tours and guides for Fly Fishing.

“But, that money doesn’t go back to Pisgah, it goes to Washington D.C. in a general fund,” he said.

Weaver said that charging user groups would take an act of Congress.

Outgoing Pisgah Trout Unlimited President Mike Mihalas said that education only goes so far.

“We put up these signs along the river that say, “Don’t move the Rocks!” he said. “But where do they move the rocks? Right in front of the signs. It’s a real challenge. We need enforcement.”

 
 

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