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At the Horton Grove preserve, Masten explained that the TLC's vision is to create a mosaic of forest types that he said would appeal to different animals. By cutting trees, he said, the wildlife habitats can be diversified. In the future, walking trails would wind through the preserve, which would one day be open to the public.
For example, the logged site along Lake Michie Dam Road would give visitors a chance to see the brush and weeds that could grow up and attract songbirds. Plus, the upturned dirt from a clear-cut provides grit for the birds, he noted, and lizards would enjoy resting on the sun-baked ground. He said that clear-cuts are actually "imperiled" landscapes, a term some wildlife experts also use to indicate that there aren't enough cleared places in the Piedmont for the animals that like that habitat.
"What they are proposing is absurd and does not abide by the spirit of a land trust conservation purpose," said Ben Prater, associate director of Wild South, a nonprofit group that advocates for the South's wild lands, including forests. "The wildlife benefits can be provided naturally."
Prater noted that the animals that like those weeds and bushes, such as turkey and quail, would only benefit for a few years. Then the trees and vegetation would grow back so thick and bushy that "the habitat becomes unusable to anything," he said.
"These methods sound like classic silviculture, which is about cultivating trees and making money, not about protecting forests," Prater said. Prater, of course, did not have access to the conservancy's forest management plans and noted that his impressions might change if he had the chance to read them.
If left alone, the mature short-leaf and loblolly pine forest would have continued its transition into a mature hardwood forest, which ecologists say is a veritable cafeteria for wildlife. The hardwood trees provide berries, acorns and nuts, and they host the insects that many animals eat.
Another reason to cut trees is to make the forest healthier, Masten said. That is why he is sending sawheads and skidders back into the slopes of Horton Grove, where 50-to-90-year-old trees have created a wild world not far from the city lights of Durham.
This time the forest workers will roam across a 212-acre mature oak-hickory forest and remove understory trees, such as dogwoods, maples, beeches and sourwoods. Once the understory is removed using a technique called a "shelterwood" cut, the sunlight hitting the forest floor will spur the growth of even more oak trees. Halley said that oak trees are favored because they produce such valuable timber and also grow acorns that feed wild animals.
"The shady environment of these high-graded forests has encouraged the growth and occurrence of species such as red maple, sweet gum, dogwood, hornbeam, sourwood and beech which tolerate more shade but are worth much less for timber," Halley wrote in the plan.
Halley also plans to clear-cut patches in the hardwood forest, taking out mature trees, including oaks, so that young oaks can regenerate in the open sunlight. In his 2010 plan, Halley rated the stocking of oak trees in this forest as fair to excellent, and the growth rate as fair to good. His methods, he said, will further speed up growth and production. During a brief October walk in Horton Grove, numerous large hardwood trees, including oaks and hickories, were marked in blue, the logger's indication that they will be cut down.
But most of the more than 15 experts interviewed for this report—including ecologists, environmentalists, conservationists, forest watchers and other professionals—expressed reservations about cutting into a mature hardwood forest. That's because a hardwood forest of this age has such a rich ecosystem—from bacteria and fungi and soil components to birds and mammals and amphibians. Unusual plants, mosses and lichens can inhabit the forest, not to mention bizarre bugs.
Like other Piedmont forests, Horton Grove can host insects like the hickory horn devil caterpillar and the wheel bug, its armored crest shaped like a cogwheel and its beak a sword that pierces victims. A mature hardwood forest of this complexity can take 100 to 200 years to become established, according to figures on the Duke Forest website.
Forest ecologist Robert Peet, who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said oak trees are not as common as they used to be, and that selective cutting has been used to regenerate oak trees. But taking out the understory trees does not necessarily make the forest healthier. "Does this help forest health? No," he said. "Does it improve biodiversity? Not at all."
And some forest watchers warn that the sunny patches can be entryways for invasive plants, whose growth may compel forest managers to use herbicides. Alarmingly for the salamanders, the increased sunlight can dry out the soil and leaf clutter. In dry conditions, the salamanders suffocate.
Locally rare redback salamanders live on the moist, north-facing slopes of Horton Grove, where males with red-striped bodies and dark, protruding eyes rub their chins on the noses of females hoping to convince them to breed. "Cutting trees where they live would wipe them out," said LeGrand, the zoologist. "They are found in only a few places in the Triangle."
Though Masten said the TLC is cutting trees to help make the forest more productive for wildlife, he could not answer questions about how the "shelterwood" cut would affect some of the animals that thrive in the interior of the Horton Grove forest, such as the redback salamander, the pileated woodpecker or the wood thrush, whose local numbers are plummeting.
"I am not a forester and [I'm] not going to try and answer the shelterwood question myself, but I get the impression you are viewing things narrowly," Masten responded, adding that it is important not to lose sight of the "big comprehensive picture."
Masten, the TLC's conservation strategies director, has a bachelor's degree in finance. He worked for the U.S. Army and then as a manager distributing magnetic tape for BASF, now the world's largest chemical company. He says he felt a calling to do conservation work after volunteering for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, an unusual combination of a land trust and a forestry association that practices logging. He earned a master's degree in regional planning from UNC-Chapel Hill and began working for the TLC in 2001.
Speaking generally and not of the TLC's particular plans, Derb Carter Jr. of the Southern Environmental Law Center said that nature can take care of the forest in most cases and does not require the guidance of loggers.
"It makes you wonder how the forest survived before the Europeans arrived," he said in an interview. "In my view, the economic interests have abused the term 'forest health' because it sounds good to the public. Unless you get into the nuances and details, who can oppose a healthy forest?"
Deep in the TLC's White Pines preserve, the Rocky and Deep rivers converge. The waters ripple over stones, cooling the surrounding forest and creating a micro-climate where relics from the last Ice Age have survived.
The relics are trees—a rare type of white pine trees whose branches are wispy, the needles bluish-green. This stand of white pines is rare because the trees have survived temperatures that have warmed over the last 10,000 years. Some naturalists say the trees are genetically adapted now to the warmer climate, are unique to Chatham County and are of national geological significance.
In 2004, Brice led the group's first timbering project. White Pines is the best example, Brice said, of the conservation group's forestry efforts—which are targeted at conservation goals, he said, not economic return.
At the time, the TLC's press release and news coverage said the TLC would thin about 100 acres of loblolly pine trees in order to bring more sunlight to the forest floor. TLC land managers thought this would improve the survival chances of the 50,000 white pine saplings that they intended to plant in 2007, a date detailed in the TLC's 2004 news release.
The first step of the plan was the timber harvest (which tax forms indicate generated $34,000); the second step was the collection of white pine seeds from the forest floor; and the third step was growing the saplings at a nursery. Once the saplings were two years old, they would be replanted at the White Pines preserve to help shore up the existing population of these native trees.
Conservationists have been enthusiastic about projects like this one, in which timber harvesting is used to restore a native species. And so on a sweltering June day, this reporter went to White Pines to see these very special young trees that had been planted.
The path at White Pines was thick and soft with decaying leaves and descended down the slopes to the edge of the rivers. Along the riverbanks, huge sycamores leaned over the water, creating cool harbors for fish. Turtles resting on logs plopped into the water. Across the river, two herons seemed to court each other. The male with the heightened crest flapped his wings.
Occasionally, a young white pine was visible close to the path. But these were naturally propagated, not planted, and were growing in the shadow of the other forest trees.
Back up the slopes, the flatlands extended, the canopy of trees overhead still lush and green. Down a logging road, hardwood trees were marked with the blue spray-paint, that loggers use to indicate the trees that will be cut down.Still, no white pine saplings were visible.
Then the sun beamed overhead. The canopy of the forest stopped at the sprawling former clear-cuts, patches where life now seemed to choke other life, the vegetation twisting with briars and loblolly and sweet gum saplings. Ticks crawled among the invasive plants that exploded along the pathway—but no white pine saplings grew among the weeds.
Interviewed soon after the visit, Brice acknowledged that the 50,000 white pine saplings were missing. In fact, they'd never been planted, he said, though it has been seven years since the cutting was done to make room for them. Staff changes caused the delay, he said.
That same day, on the TLC blog, he described the White Pines restoration project as "disciplined and methodical." He'll plant a crop sometime next year, he said in the interview, of perhaps 2,000 saplings.