Nick Biemiller & John Culclasure 

Support Wildlife In Southern Appalachian Forests


Last updated 6/29/2020 at 11:54am

Forests in the Southern Appalachians are some of the most biologically diverse temperate forests in the world: however, these forests have departed from healthy conditions and many wildlife and plant species are in decline due to a lack of habitat diversity.

At 1.04 million acres, the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests are one of the best opportunities to meaningfully benefit wildlife at a landscape-scale because of the large land base under one ownership and the unique forest types found on the forests (e.g. high elevation spruce-fir forests) that are critical for many wildlife species.

The U.S. Forest Service is revising the management plan for the forests, and this a tremendous opportunity to set a new course for improving forest health and wildlife habitat.

The forests provide important opportunities for wildlife-based recreation, such as wildlife viewing, fishing and hunting. North Carolina’s sportsmen and women support more than 35,000 jobs and contribute more than $3.7 billion to the state’s economy, and hunting and fishing are a cherished part of Western North Carolina’s outdoor heritage.

To provide robust wildlife-associated recreational opportunities, we are hopeful that the new forest plan will emphasize management flexibility to facilitate wildlife habitat improvements to help declining wildlife populations, game and nongame.

The multiple-use mission of our national forests commits these lands to provide timber, water, recreation, economic development and wildlife habitat. The commitment to public benefit is long-term because national forests are permanently protected from forest conversion and development.

However, the multiple-use benefits of our national forests are not always realized. More than 80 million acres of national forest lands are in need of restoration, and the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests are no exception. The most recent draft plan for the forests identifies 570,000 acres that need restoration to promote open forest and young forest conditions.

Historically, a large portion of forests in the Southern Appalachians were shaped by frequent disturbances (e.g. wildfires) that promoted open conditions and diverse structural habitat (e.g. multiple-aged forest stands). Decades of fire suppression policy, forest fragmentation and forest conversion decreased the scope, frequency and intensity of natural disturbance patterns on the landscape and changed the composition and structure of our region’s forests.

Additionally, the U.S. Forest Service has not met forest plan goals for creating young forest habitat. Early seral habitats (e.g. regenerating forests) comprise less than 2.7 percent of the forests even though these habitats are critical for many species of wildlife, and evidence from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s Bird-Matrix Report suggests 8-12 percent or higher would be optimal for bird diversity across the forests.

Species that have especially been impacted by the loss of young forests include ruffed grouse, American woodcock, golden-winged warbler and Appalachian cottontail, among many others. The closed canopy conditions of the forests today do not provide sufficient habitats to meet the diverse needs of Appalachian wildlife whether it be deer, elk, butterflies or birds.

Our forests have also been negatively impacted by invasive exotic plants, pests and pathogens. Invasive species out-compete native vegetation and reduce forage for wildlife, and pathogens like the chestnut blight resulted in the loss of the American chestnut, which was a critical source of hard mast for wildlife.

Fortunately, we can address these problems using science-based forest management tools. Commercial timber harvesting is an effective means to restore healthy and resilient forests and benefit forest wildlife while also supporting local economies, providing clean air and water, and provisioning a variety of other public benefits. By understanding forest ecology, we can utilize timber harvesting in combination with noncommercial treatments and controlled burning to mimic natural disturbance patterns and improve wildlife habitat.

Wildlife conservation is largely funded by sportsmen and women through the “user-pays, public-benefits” structure known as the American System of Conservation Funding. Through the purchase of hunting and fishing licenses and excise taxes on sporting-related goods, North Carolina’s sportsmen and women generated $60.75 million for conservation in 2019 alone.

Hunters and anglers are vested conservationists with a long history of leading wildlife restoration efforts, including many iconic mountain species – black bear, brook trout, wild turkey, white-tailed deer and more recently, elk. Working together with other forest users, we can meet the conservation challenges facing wildlife that rely on young forests and habitat diversity.

Through an emphasis on active forest management, we are optimistic that the new forest plan will support a vibrant economy for wildlife-based recreation and forest products in WNC.

The Proposed Forest Plan and Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests are available for public review and comment until June 29. We encourage everyone who values public lands in Western North Carolina to submit comments to the U.S. Forest Service in support of active management to support healthy and resilient forests and the wildlife that depend upon them.

(Biemiller is the Southern Appalachian Forest Conservation Director with the Ruffed Grouse Society & American Woodcock Society and is based in Asheville. Founded in 1961, the Ruffed Grouse Society is a leading proponent of science-based forest and wildlife management.

Culclasure, was raised in Hendersonville. He is the Southeastern States Assistant Director for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF). Founded in the 1989, CSF’s mission is to work with Congress, governors, and state legislatures to protect and advance hunting, angling, recreational shooting, and trapping.)


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