NC Nonprofit Helps Landowners Blend Economics, Ecology

By Karen Chavez for the Asheville Citizen-Times

SWANNANOA – Western North Carolina's forests are having a midlife crisis.

Emerging from a bad past, forests are caught in a middle age limbo, with very little early succession, or young forest — important habitat for deer, turkey, birds and other wildlife — and very little old growth forest, also needed for wildlife, as well as for clean water, healthy soils and carbon sequestration, important in mitigating climate change.

American redstart

Many birds need young forest habitat during one or more stages of their life./T. Berriman

Private forest landowners also get caught in the conundrum: how to keep their forests healthy while deriving income. Should they log, open for hiking trails or mushroom foraging, or develop luxury home sites?

Enter EcoForesters.

The recently established Asheville nonprofit works with private forest owners to manage their property for forest health and sustainability, while also making some money.

The work is imperative, said founder and president Rob Lamb.

Even though western North Carolina seems awash in publicly managed forests such as the million acres of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests and the half-million-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 75 percent of WNC forests are privately owned.

“What we’re striving to do is forest stewardship in a large-scale and comprehensive way,” Lamb said. “We’re trying to find a way to serve conservation groups and landowners together that own forest land outside of national forest. Most forest is privately owned, especially in the East.”

On an educational tour of the forested campus of Warren Wilson College on a humid Saturday in June, EcoForesters lead forester Andy Tait led a group of landowners down a history of WNC’s woodlands.

“Southern Appalachian forests are not natural anymore. They’re less diverse. Eighty-five percent were clear-cut, and there was widespread high-grading (cutting only the highest-grade, or biggest and best trees, and leaving the weak or diseased trees) within the past 100 years,” Tait said. “There was no erosion control, (so) soil washed into streams, killed fish, and they had to import nonnative fish.”

Logging truck

When carefully planned and carried out, timber harvests can improve forest health and provide good habitat for wildlife.

That is just some of the collateral damage of poor forestry practices from the large timber companies in the past century, Tait said. Clear-cutting and high-grading, also known as “diameter limit cutting” or “selective cutting,” left a forest landscape devoid of diversity.

That in turn left the forest vulnerable to invasive plants and insects.

With a backdrop of the distant Black Mountains, the hikers entered a forest of tree trunks draped in heavy green cloaks, pretty pink flowers and fluffy hanging vines.

While it’s attractive to the average trail hiker, Tait sees the vegetation as silent, stalking killers known as invasives — including oriental bittersweet, Japanese spirea and tree of heaven — all climbing, squeezing and choking their prey.

Weakened trees were also left vulnerable to diseases such as the chestnut blight in the 1950s that extirpated the once-mighty trees from the East Coast, and exotic insects such as the emerald ash borer, gypsy moths, balsam woolly adelgid and hemlock woolly adelgid. Invasives inhibit native plant growth, reduce wildlife habitat and recreational value and lead to decreased land productivity and land value.

“This land was all farm or pastureland 60 to 70 years ago. It was cleared, and invasives were able to get a foothold, slow moving but an ecological nightmare,” he said.

The group moved further into the forest to see another common practice of the last century — white pine stands. These were planted in dense clumps, growing more than 100 feet high and shading out everything beneath them. Considered a monoculture, they are not desirable for forest diversity, Tait said.

In addition to wanton timbering and widespread growth of invasive species, the Southern Appalachians also suffer from years of suppressed fires. Fire is a natural disturbance that many tree species, including oaks, need to regenerate, and most recently, widespread development and urbanization have pushed forests to the brink, Tait said.

Image

Young forest provides important habitat for deer, wild turkeys, and other wildlife in the Southern Appalachians./USFWS

EcoForesters’ mission, however, is not to spread despair, but to shed light on how resilient forests can be — and how economically viable — with some TLC and knowledgeable, ecologically sustainable forestry.

For instance, crown thinning helps to transition a white pine stand to one of mixed hardwood trees, a more diverse understory, and more diversity of wildlife. “Crown thinning leaves a nice, aesthetic forest, more acres for trails and more value,” Tait said.

“Ecoforestry mimics natural processes and creates ideal conditions instead of waiting for pines to die naturally. Oaks need partial sun; they need help. Wildlife such as deer love it. Fresh plants are more tender.”

The walk and talk was refreshing for Jane and Robert Peebles, who bought 141 acres of steep forest in 1974. They worked the land as a Christmas tree farm but now are just vegetable gardening and wanted to hear other options.

“We have great big huge trees that could benefit from logging. But all the logging I’ve seen is totally devastating. That’s why we’ve never done anything before,” Robert Peebles said.

“Our sense is to improve the forest. The value of our land is that forest. I would be very interested in preserving it for our grandchildren and improving the forest and taking care of the forest,” Jane Peebles said.

“This is the first opportunity I’ve had to sit down and listen to these ideas. It has been new and interesting.”

Inspired to Forest Stewardship

Rob Lamb, who thru-hiked the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, founded EcoForesters in 2015, seeing the need to restore the huge swaths of degraded Appalachian forests through the use of positive-impact forestry.

"[Hiking] the AT solidified for me that this is the forest community I want to work in," said Lamb, who grew up in Atlanta and graduated from the Yale School of Forestry. "I think the Southern Appalachians, outside of the tropics, is one of the most diverse and complex forest systems in North America. As far as forest restoration, it’s quite complex."

He hired Tait, who had hiked sections of the Appalachian Trail and worked as a forester with the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station.

“Hiking the AT through the Southern Appalachians and seeing the diversity of trees and the mountains, and seeing the views of clear cuts and poor management, it was a defining moment for me,” Tait said.

Lamb distinctly wanted EcoForesters to be a nonprofit 501(c)(3) to promote mission over money.

Lamb, who is now president of the EcoForesters board of directors, is also working in Vermont to expand EcoForesters' work in the northern Appalachian region.

The nonprofit’s mission to use positive-impact forestry and natural resource education to conserve and restore ecological resilience includes working on stewardship plans with landowners and collaborating with other conservation organizations, educational institutions and with government agencies such as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Profits from forest management plans and consulting go back into the mission, such as education, leading public workshops and forest service learning for students.

Tait said EcoForesters work for the landowners and represent their interests, working on stewardship plans for them. But they’ll stop at the idea of large commercial development.

“We won’t do anything that will degrade the forest,” he said. “We’re the only organization of this kind we know. We hope this will be a model going forward. Profit has to be a secondary aspect of forest management."

Hanni Muerdter, stewardship and conservation planning director with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, came on the walk since the land conservancy had been working with EcoForesters.

“We can see the value of working with a registered forester who is ecologically minded. A lot of times people think they’re working with foresters but it’s really a logger. I think a lot of people aren’t aware of who’s performing their work,” she said.

“Foresters are working with you and for your interests. Ecoforestry is unique because it’s a nonprofit. To get to meld ecology and monetary aspects, it puts seeds in people’s minds.”

Learn More

For more information, visit www.ecoforesters.org.