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Providing oversight of the TLC staff is an 18-member board of directors composed of many real estate developers, corporate executives and businesspeople. One environmental planner sits on the board, but it does not include a biologist, an ecologist or a wildlife specialist.
On June 22, the board posted a forest management policy to the group's website. Prior to the policy's adoption, the TLC had already logged sections of three nature preserves—and this reporter had begun asking questions.
In its policy statement, the board said the TLC will cut down trees for conservation-related purposes, such as for forest health or for safety, but not for financial gain. Revenue generated from logging trees would be simply a "spin-off benefit," the policy said. Logging would only be done if it could enhance the property's condition, the board members agreed.
Asked how the clear-cut at Horton Grove could be considered an enhancement, Board Chairwoman Anne Stoddard, a Chapel Hill real estate developer and consultant, said, "You are using the words clear-cut. I'm not aware of anything being done that is a clear-cut."
Stoddard said she has not been to the actual forests being cut, nor has she read any of the forest management plans. "I couldn't read a forest management plan," she said. She added that it is not the board's job to "second-guess" Brice, who she said had asked her to join the board in 2005.
Board member Bill Holman has a bachelor's degree in biology, but works as director of state policy at the Duke University Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. He had not returned calls and email messages by press time.
Understanding exactly what takes place in the TLC's forests is difficult. TLC officials are not subject to the same public records and open meetings laws under which public agencies operate because the TLC is a private, nonprofit organization. This is true even though the group has received public funding and is considered a publicly supported organization by the IRS.
Brice confirmed that the TLC's annual operating budget is around $950,000—90 percent of which is devoted to paying 13 staff members. Staff salaries, benefits and payroll taxes totaled $863,000, according to the TLC's 2009–2010 IRS tax form. To pay those expenses, the group is under increasing pressure. State cutbacks in the Clean Water Management Trust Fund (reduced this year from its high of $100 million per year to $11 million) and other state conservation funds are affecting the group's bottom line.
The TLC is also facing a decline in donations, including a 46 percent dip in individual contributions two years ago. As a result, the group suffered a $100,000 operating budget deficit in 2009–2010, Brice confirmed.
Though the forest management plans contain no financial information, the group's IRS tax forms have indicated timber sales of about $51,000 from the 2004 and 2009 cuts. This figure does not include timber sales from this latest, rather active year because the 2010–2011 tax form is not yet due.
The loggers provide other economic benefits to the TLC, such as building access roads through the properties and clearing land for TLC's new agricultural and educational projects. Some of the felled trees have been milled and then used by the TLC to build structures that it leases to other nonprofit groups.
For example, wood from the downed trees was used last spring to build a food processing building and a school pavilion at the Irvin preserve, which is not open to the general public. Brice declined to specify how much rent and fees are collected from the groups that use the new facilities.
TLC officials say these buildings were built with trees cut to rid the Irvin woodland of a pine bark beetle infestation. But an itemization in the forest management binder indicates that of the 2,525 hardwood and pine trees cut in the 2009 logging, only 125 pine trees were infested with pine bark beetles, a native insect. Some ecologists say that the pine bark beetle plays a role in the forest ecosystem; others say the beetle is a pest that should be eradicated.
In addition to those trees, the document indicates that most of the understory trees were destroyed in the logging because the TLC could not afford to hire an arborist to teach the loggers how to save them.
Many of the nation's 1,700 local land trusts recently have had to tighten their belts. But while most other land trusts are limiting new programs and cutting expenses, the TLC is creating new facilities and plans.
On a May visit to the Irvin preserve, it appeared that the TLC was busy. Painters were putting the finishing touches on the new food processing center and teachers were waiting by the school pavilion for children to arrive.
The processing center and surrounding gardens are leased by the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle to prepare food for low-income communities. The barn will be used to wash and package vegetables grown in the shuttle group's nearby rented plots.
The Irvin Learning Farm, another nonprofit group, uses the school pavilion for nature programs such as a forest kindergarten that costs $395 per child for 15 sessions. Teacher Wendy Banning said she is thrilled to see how much the children enjoy the outdoor learning.
Past the new buildings and down a logging road, under the still branches of the oak and hickory trees, lay more stacks of milled lumber awaiting the TLC's next step.
"It is the evolution of a conservation organization," Brice said, later explaining that in his view people were no longer enthusiastic about the traditional preservation mission of the group. Its membership has not grown but has leveled off at 3,000 members for the last 10 years. "The definition I think about when I think about conservation is wise use—how to put to use our natural resources in a way that benefits us but also that leaves a small footprint on the landscape as possible."
Despite the ongoing work at the Irvin preserve, the TLC is reluctant to share details of the plans, just as it has been reluctant to share those for timber management. Tucked into a forest management binder on this reporter's July visit to the TLC's Raleigh office was a conceptual map for the Irvin preserve that indicated expanded vegetable gardens, livestock pastures and new facilities, including another food processing building and greenhouse, additional barns and operations buildings and classrooms.
Masten declined a request to copy the conceptual plan so that it could be shared with the public.
The TLC's recent directions raise questions. What is protecting a forest? What does conservation mean? Is a healthy forest one where decaying trees feed new life? Or does a healthy forest efficiently grow trees that will be cut and sold?
Historic maps of the U.S. virgin forest show that the Piedmont's natural heritage was not weedy fields, not clearings, not young forest kept young by repeated timbering. In the early 1600s before the European settlers arrived, the entire Piedmont was covered with trees hundreds of years old, a vast virgin forest.
Then the settlers arrived and began cultivating, building and logging. Former chief of the U.S. Forest Service W.B. Greeley published maps of the virgin forests as they existed in 1620, 1850 and 1920, which show over time the disappearance of the old-growth trees, according to a 1925 edition of Economic Geography.
Today in the Triangle, not a single virgin forest is left. Mature, upland forests with trees more than 100 years old are uncommon. What the Piedmont has in abundance is younger, previously timbered forests. Indeed, the Triangle has about 250,000 acres of privately owned woodland devoted to timber production, according to figures provided by Chatham, Orange, Wake and Durham tax officials.
In her books, Among the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests and Teaching the Trees: Lessons From the Forest, biologist and forest ecologist Joan Maloof details the complex process of old-growth forests, where life initiates in the decaying parts of old trees.
Old-growth forests are important because they are habitat for animals, insects and other organisms that survive only among older trees, she says. Old-growth forests remove more pollutants from the air and water than younger ones, she says.
"I would be disappointed if my land trust were not letting forests regain maturity," she said in a phone interview. "That is one place where we can let the land heal and provide critical habitat and pollution abatement."
Humans find forests more beautiful the older the trees get. "The importance of beauty is an area of research we humans know very little about," says Maloof, an advocate for public access to older forests.
Larry Tombaugh, a TLC board member and specialist in forest economics—he was the dean of the N.C. State College of Natural Resources from 1989–2001—says that the TLC can cut trees and still keep the forest ecologically healthy. Cutting down sick and diseased trees is important for overall forest health, he said in an interview. In his 1986 article, "Conservation—An Outmoded Concept?", published in American Forests magazine, Tombaugh made the case that logging can be considered a type of conservation.
"Forests are living environments that need to be managed a little bit," he said in an interview. "It's hard to define forest health until you don't see it anymore."
The TLC's mission—to protect important open space, including stream corridors, forests, wildlife habitats and farmland—was a grassroots inspiration, said David Bland, a Durham lawyer and one of the TLC's original founders. He said the founders in 1983 manned tables at festivals, knocked on doors and made hundreds of phone calls, telling people they could save the places they loved from the encroachment of development.
Clearly the TLC has saved places from development. The group owns not only the 4,000 acres of conservation land, but also about 5,000 acres of conservation easements on privately owned land. Many of these holdings preserve rural landscapes, such as along Dairyland Road in Orange County, and stream buffers, such as a 13-mile stretch along Durham's New Hope Creek.
And the group has rented space and land to other nonprofit groups serving local needs, such as the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle and the Irvin Learning Farm.
But how extensively the group will use its forests for commercial production is uncertain.
Robin Schectman of Chapel Hill gave money to the TLC after she was impressed by a visit to the White Pines preserve. She donated money, she said, because she likes to have places to hike close to her home.
She wants to think that the TLC has good reasons to cut the trees. "But if all I know is that they have these forest management plans that they don't want to make open, that's suspicious enough to keep me from giving them more money," she said.
"It does seem odd for a conservation organization to be making money by cutting trees," she added. "In that case, they should be called the Triangle Timber Organization."
Research support was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
Laura Herbst teaches newswriting at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Sun magazine and in The News & Observer.