Orange Water and Sewer Authority officials thought it would be a straightforward meeting. To pitch the highlights of their forest resource management plan to the public, they paraded rangers and wildlife experts who supported the plan to cull 1,900 acres of trees on 17 tracts and "restore grandeur to the woods" that OWASA owns.
Instead OWASA, the nonprofit public utility providing water to Chapel Hill and Carrboro, saw that November night at the Maple View Agriculture Center the grassroots machine of residents in southwest rural Orange County. Don't try building an airport near them or a landfill or a waste transfer station. And, now, don't cut down the trees in the Cane Creek Watershed, which could ruin the view or animal and bird habitats.
In the spirit of Dr. Seuss' Lorax, residents raised concerns about OWASA's plan to manage its forestland, which includes controlled burns, selective cutting and herbicides. For four hours, they pled, as resident Brenda Malone put it, for OWASA not to "disrupt our lives and destroy our property."
Among the questions they had for OWASA: Are you profiting from this? Why are you using herbicides? How does this do anything to enhance water quality? What would happen if you did nothing?
OWASA answered, but not in full. But the board did vote to delay any major action on the proposal. It directed the staff to gather more facts before issuing a new report, due early this year, that addresses residents' concerns.
Though many opponents of OWASA's management plan point to specific trees they say should not be felled, the core of the controversy focuses on whether it's appropriate for OWASA to manage a forest at all.
"We don't expect OWASA to be involved in the forestry management business, which we think is tree farming," said Bonnie Hauser of Orange County Voice.
A little more than a year ago, OWASA hired True North Forest Management Services of Holly Springs to craft a plan to manage the woods. True North was paid $65 per hour, not to exceed $22,000, according to OWASA documents.
Last May, OWASA also retained True North to create a forest management plan for 490 acres on Buckhorn Game Land. The company was also contracted to sell the timber harvested at Buckhorn and received a 10 percent commission plus a $35-per-acre marking fee to designate pines and hardwoods to be cut and sold.
Many who spoke at the November meeting asserted that money is driving the forest management plan, but OWASA officials maintain that the plan is "revenue neutral." It won't cost the utility any money but won't generate income either. Yet OWASA has not released a detailed budget for the project.
"We don't have any need or reason to hide," OWASA Sustainability Manager Pat Davis assured, promising that the information would be made public once it's gathered.
Nonetheless, the plan, opponents say, amounts to converting OWASA land into a money-making machine. "I want to see the version before all of the revenue information was removed," resident Jim Warren said at the November meeting.
All of the forestry management practices proposed by True North are used at Duke Forest, resource manager Judd Edeburn said, including burning and herbicide use.
OWASA and True North contend that parts of the 1,900 acres are "overmature," a term used to describe forests that are too populated or too old. However, to say a forest is "overmature" is often to justify cutting trees—unnecessarily, says Derb Carter, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center's North Carolina/ South Carolina office.
"'Overmature forests,' this is purely an economical term and it has no basis in science or ecology at all," Carter said. "What we have here is a plan that's driven on the lowest priority"—money.
True North recommends that herbicides be used only once in the 45-year lifespan of each tree and applied to 37 acres per year. But civil engineer Michael Hughes of the Clean Water Coalition of Orange County, calls using chemicals "ridiculous."
If herbicides are used, they would include one or more of the following brands, which Davis says are approved for use on woodlands certified by the Forest Stewardship Council: Arsenal, Accord and Garlon. The active ingredients in those herbicides are, respectively, imazapyr, glyphosate and triclopyr.
The Environmental Protection Agency has designated imazapyr as a potential groundwater contaminant because it moves easily through water. Studies by the International Organization for Biological Control have shown that glyphosate can harm beneficial species, such as earthworms and ladybugs.
Davis emphasized that any herbicides would be applied according to regulations involving setbacks from wells, bodies of water and other environmentally vulnerable areas.
In some areas, there hasn't been any active forest management on OWASA land for decades. Dead or dying trees in some of those areas are infested by pine beetles. Many can't reach necessary water and sunlight because the forest is overcrowded.
"This could ultimately allow residue from the dead timber to accumulate on the forest floor, thus creating a potential wildfire hazard," N.C. District 11 Forester John Howard, who oversees Orange County, wrote in a letter to the OWASA board. "Not every acre of OWASA property needs action, but there are numerous acres of historically unmanaged OWASA sites that absolutely need something to improve their health."
However, Davis acknowledges that OWASA, even with its park rangers and wildlife experts, has not adequately made its case to the public. "We've fallen way short here initially on making sure there's a really good understanding of what we've proposed," he said.
"We'll come back with a revised draft plan that hopefully, when folks see it and review it and think about it that they say, 'We are fortunate to have OWASA as a neighbor doing this, rather than a private landowner. We're fortunate that OWASA listened and they are responding and have taken action to improve the draft plan,'" Davis says. "In the end, the decision won't be a perfect one for everyone."