Thanks to the work of another generation of forest activists, logging on North Carolina’s National Forests is a very different creature than it was a decade and a half ago. Timber harvest has decreased on the Nantahala-Pisgah from the historically high levels seen throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s.
Harvest levels were high and the means of achieving them was most often clearcuts. That heavily impacted the native forests just then beginning to recover from the devastating logging that occurred around the turn of the last century.
The forests of the Southern Appalachians are remarkably resilient, but for all their resiliency they require time to recover the species and structural diversity that characterized the original forests of the Southern Appalachians. If logging in the early decades of the 20th Century was scandalously exploitive in the extreme, large-scale clearcutting in the middle of the century tended to perpetuate the damage and to greatly retard the forests’ recovery.
Such destructive logging has slowed over the last 20 years but it hasn’t stopped. The 1987 forest plan for the Nantahala-Pisgah called for clearcutting around 4,500 acres a year. But after conservationists appealed that plan and forced revisions in it, the final plan amendments in 1993 reduced the clearcutting to around 240 acres a year. Even that is supposed to be limited to efforts to restore damaged ecosystems and to restore short-leaf pine.
Also in the original 1987 plan, the allowable sales quantity (ASQ) was a stunning 72 million board feet per year. The final 1993 amendment more than halved that number to 34 million board feet. In 2006, the last year for which the Forest Service provides the information on its website, 13 million board feet were harvested on 1,308 acres. Only 20 acres were clearcut.
There is a tremendous need for a restoration focus on the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forests to address their degradation over the last century. The public increasingly recognizes the need for forest restoration and so, as a public matter, does the Forest Service. Conservation organizations across the Southern Appalachians are working with the agency to ensure that restoration efforts are just that and not merely an excuse to slide back into large timber harvests. Restoration must address watershed and stream restoration, restoration of species diversity and structure, and attack exotic species and diseases. That work alone will demand a concerted effort and consume all available resources.
It will be important in reviewing the new forest plans to ensure that restoration is truly restoration and are not merely an excuse to slide back into the practice of large timber harvests. If restoration becomes merely a guise, it holds the potential for considerable mischief.
Conservationists meet regularly with Forest Service staff to define restoration in Appalachian ecosystems. Such scrutiny will be even more important for the upcoming plan if we are to ensure that restoration efforts do not simply become code words for business as usual.