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Rare Old Growth Forests Threatened

Threatened national forest tracts harbor rare old-growth forests
by Mary Kelly
Special for WNC Alliance/Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition

Josh Kelly grew up on Meadowfork Creek in Madison County, right in the shadow of public forest tract #F-605K. It’s one of 25 “small” tracts totaling nearly 1,500 acres that are now part of Pisgah National Forest in Madison County but proposed to be put up for sale by President Bush under the “Secure Rural Schools (SRS) Land Sales Initiative.”

LANDS POTENTIALLY FOR SALE: Click here.

To Josh, the tracts of land for sale are more than just letters and numbers. They are beautiful places with names that all have their own stories, like Dixon Mountain, Hogback Mountain, Caldwell Mountain, Meadow Fork Mountain, and Granny Rose Hill. When Kelly heard his boyhood haunt and other tracts might be put up for sale, it inspired him to want to publicize the results of a study he has completed about the rare old forests on Forest Service lands in and around Madison County. 

Kelly, now a resident of the Shelton Laurel community, will be presenting the results of his study at the Madison County AB-Tech on Thursday, March 30th at 6pm. But meanwhile, he wanted to get the word out on what he has found.

Kelly is one of the few people who has actually walked, scrambled, and climbed up into these tracts to see what was there. Most of the tracts are isolated and a little tough to find, but Kelly was determined. Along with his assistant, Dan Entmacher, Kelly has traversed the difficult sites,
carefully measured and photographed trees within them, and recorded information about plants and soils, signs of disturbance, and any signs of past logging.

What he found was astonishing. “Some of the oldest forests I found in my study are located on some of these tracts they want to sell,” said Kelly. One gnarled chestnut oak on a tract near Woolyshot Branch whose age was measured by coring and counting its growth rings, proved to be 230 years old, as old as the Declaration of Independence. Other tracts contained trees well over 200 years old. Many of the oldest forests are located above steep rocky cliffs where it was too steep to log. The absence of cut stumps and the presence of unlogged dead chestnut trees were clues to Kelly that a tract had not been logged.

“These tracts they want to sell are some of the nicest places that we have left in Madison County,” said Kelly. “These are ancient forests that go back before our country was founded! These tracts include really important habitat for black bear, which den in large old trees and travel along ridges. Hogback Mountain contains lots of mature oak forests that bears will travel to from far and wide for their food,” continued Kelly. 

To a boy who loved to ramble in the woods, the tall trees, lush wildflowers and rich soils in the shady coves of tract F-605K next door offered a wondrous contrast to the cutover woods on adjacent private lands. The natural beauty of those public woods helped inspire Kelly, now 27, towards a career in natural sciences, including a degree in Biology from UNC-Asheville. He got interested in old growth forests while climbing around on other publicly-owned tracts around Spring Creek.

The effort to identify and document the presence and characteristics of old growth forests in our region has been going on for over a decade. Using the methodology and old growth definitions developed in documenting ancient forests in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Western North Carolina Alliance and Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition have debunked the myth that our region doesn’t contain such ancient and precious old growth forests. Similar methodology developed by the Forest Service recognizes forests like Joyce Kilmer in Nantahala National Forest as old growth. The site-specific data collected by Kelly and others is used by these groups to urge the Forest Service for further protection of these special areas.

The campaign has identified over 109,000 acres of previously unidentified old growth forests in the region and will provide crucial data during National Forest planning for the future protection and recovery of old growth in the region. The work has also added to existing data on rare communities, critical watersheds, and the conservation potential of unroaded areas; as well as protected old growth forests from logging and other projects. Kelly’s completed report, “Old Growth Forest in The Blue Ridge: New Finds from 2003 - 2005” contains specific information about many tough-to-get-to forest tracts around Madison County.

But in the short term, Kelly wants the results of his study to inspire his friends and neighbors to rally against the Bush Administration’s plan to sell off the tracts.  “It would be tragic to sell these forests off, really short-sighted and would set a very bad precedent.”  At the urging of the Madison County Forest Watch, a local grassroots offshoot of the WNC Alliance, many folks around Madison County have been writing and calling their US Congressional representatives and Senators to urge them to stop the proposed sales before it makes it into law.

Kelly also plans to send information from his study to the Forest Service, which is accepting public comments about the “SRS Land Sales Initiative” until March 30 by e-mail at SRS_Land_Sales@fs.fed.us.  “They need to know that these ARE valuable tracts, and should continue to be protected for future generations and open to all as part of our National Forests,” exclaimed Kelly.

Kelly will be presenting the results of his Blue Ridge Old Growth Initiative Study in a slide show in the Lecture Room at the Madison County AB Tech on Thursday, March 30, 2006, at 6 pm, and will lead a public hike into some old growth areas on April 29.  Kelly’s complete report, as well as information about the upcoming presentation and hike can be found at www.SAFC.org.

***

About the WNC Alliance: The Western North Carolina Alliance represents democracy in action - a grassroots organization of people who care about the quality of life in our towns and countryside.  For the past twenty years, they've been bringing people together to address critical environmental issues facing our mountain communities - issues that have local, regional, state, and national impact.

About SAFC: Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition (SAFC) is a group of 22 of the region’s conservation groups striving to protect and restore our National Forest lands.  SAFC calls out not only to the conservationist and the activist, but also to every citizen to engage in the discussions and take the action that can lead us in the direction of health for our forests, our lands, and our people.

-News printed with permission by SAFC


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