The USFS Southern Research Station, located in Asheville, released a report on June 1st titled “Water Yields from Southern Appalachian Watersheds in Decline Since the 1970s”. The report studied 76 years of water yield data on public lands from 1938 to 2013. Essentially, the report found that water yields in southern Appalachian forests declined by 22% annually since the late 1970’s. This happens to coincide with when the environmental movement started petitioning the USFS to stop timber harvest.
What is the cause of decline? The cause is unmanaged forests. Because of their fast growth rate, most unmanaged forests are dominated by poplar and maple trees, shading out mast bearing trees like oak and hickory. Surprisingly, due to their rapid growth, poplar and maple trees consume more ground water compared to oak and hickory. Therefore, an unmanaged forest that is allowed to regenerate naturally with poplar and maple will consume more ground water thus reducing yield into streams and water tables. I might add that managing to allow for young forest growth and mast bearing trees benefits wildlife. This should be profound information for the USFS in developing any plans in the southern Appalachian region.
In a recent article for Forest Policy blog (forestpolicypub.com) by Mac McConnell, he made the case for a better managed forest using long term data from 1990 to 2015. He connected USFS timber harvest data during that period to grouse hunter flush rate data collected by the NC WRC. The accompanying chart with the article is telling. The trend lines for a reduction in timber harvest from five thousand acres annually to only 500 acres annually directly correlates to a reduced grouse flush rate from 4.5 flushes per hour to .5 per hour in 2015. The last year of data was declared by the WRC, “By all measures, grouse hunting during the 2014-2015 season was the poorest on record.”
So for other than hunting, why is the grouse important? Wildlife biologists consider the ruffed grouse an indicator species. Because of their specific habitat needs if an ecosystem is out of balance grouse will be one of the first species to suffer. Secondly, because they are hunted data can be collected about hunter success rates for a given environment. The NC WRC not only collects flush rates but also harvest data, where the hunt took place, and also when the hunt occurred. So if grouse are in decline due to loss of habitat then a reasonable assumption can be made that other wildlife which need similar habitat will also be in decline.
Which brings us to the third reading. The American Bird Conservancy considers the Golden-Winged Warbler as one of its most threatened species. It has suffered one of the steepest population declines of any songbird. The population has declined 66 percent since 1966 primarily due to habitat loss on its breeding grounds. What type of habitat does it need and where are its breeding grounds? Well, like the ruffed grouse they need young forest growth and the southern Appalachians happen to be one of the Golden-Winged Warbler’s primary breeding grounds. Do you see a connection here?
For those that have jumped on the environmentalist bandwagon to stop all timber harvests on the Pisgah/Nantahala National Forests think of the consequences of those actions. Volumes of empirical data exist to make the case for a well managed forest, providing a variety of age classifications, being best for both game and non-game wildlife. Now we have the evidence we need to show that same properly managed forest yields more water in our streams, rivers and lakes for drinking and recreational use. There is only one question remaining: Will the USFS follow the science and do what is best for wildlife and the public, or bow to environmentalist emotional appeals and propose a plan that continues on its current non-management path?
Don Mallicoat can be reached at Don@wingsnclays.com