Once an area is designated Wilderness the Forest Service is prohibited from any mechanical manipulation. Photo courtesy U.S. Wildlife Service.
By Don Mallicoat – I went grouse hunting in the Big Ivy area of the Pisgah National Forest last week near Barnardsville. There were a couple of reasons. First, it’s fairly close to home, making it a short hunt, and I haven’t hunted in several years. Second, it’s been in the news recently when both the Buncombe County Commissioners and Asheville City Council supported resolutions calling on the Forest Service to make it designated Wilderness Area in the future Pisgah/Nantahala plan. Part of my purpose was to see the condition of the forests in light of the resolutions.
To address the first purpose, no I didn’t flush any grouse. It was a short hunt of only an hour and half. Given Wildlife Commission grouse flush data where it’s not uncommon to get skunked on a three-hour hunt in Forest Service land the results aren’t surprising. As for the second purpose, the results are shocking. As short as my hunt was, it was long enough to get a good sense of the condition of the forest.
I grouse hunt different areas of the National Forest to include the Rich Mountain and Doe Branch areas in Madison County. My short hunt list also includes areas adjacent to Big Ivy like NC 197 from Barnardsville to Pensacola and Stoney Fork off Dillingham Road. None of them compare in their unhealthy condition to Big Ivy.
Everywhere I looked both driving in on Forest Service Road 74 and along trails was covered in deadfall. Just driving the road there are many tall firs laying on the ground. Some of them adjacent to the road apparently cut down by the Forest Service to prevent them from falling and blocking the road.
There are numerous trees fallen across trails and dead limbs and trees litter the forest floor. I didn’t just see this in one location but on three separate trails I hunted. So what’s the big deal about fallen trees and dead limbs on the ground? Isn’t that the way nature works? Here’s the problem: from a forest management perspective it is called fuel. That is what lets a wildfire get out of hand. And if the area is in Wilderness designation it makes it even worse.
Here’s why. Most people who support Wilderness don’t realize its implications. Once an area is designated Wilderness the Forest Service is prohibited from any mechanical manipulation. If a tree falls across the road they have to go in by foot and cut it with hand saws. That’s really not a problem in most Wilderness because bikes, cars, or other mechanical vehicles are not allowed. If the Big Ivy goes Wilderness they want to keep the road open.
I’m not a trained forester, but from what I observed the Big Ivy area is a wildfire waiting to happen. Here is a possible scenario that replicates the devastating wildfires in the Nantahala last year. After an unusually dry summer and fall season after leaves have fallen a strong thunderstorm passes through the area and a lightning strike sparks a small fire. The recent leaf litter catches fire and moves to dry fallen limbs which ignite. This further causes rhododendron to catch fire which climbs into the crowns of fir and pine trees. These jump to hardwoods that haven’t yet dropped their leaves. Unable to use mechanical devices and without a road network to contain fires there is no option but to let it burn. The fire moves up the mountain and jumps the Blue Ridge Parkway into the Asheville watershed which is also protected and it spreads toward Asheville from there.
Don’t think this can happen? Prior to last year’s wildfires that burned over 70,000 acres of the Nantahala, what was the largest fire we had on public land in Western North Carolina? It was in the Linville Wilderness area and burned over 5,000 acres.
Western North Carolina has a proud heritage. But it has forgotten part of that heritage: the beginning of scientific forestry management in the U.S. by Carl Schenck over 100 years ago. His school is now the Cradle of Forestry. The scientific principles he established then are still true today. An actively managed forest is healthy and can provide timber for building, recreation for people, and a home for wildlife. Forestry is a science not an emotion. The House of Representatives recently passed the Resilient Forest Bill to restore management to our federal forest. Let’s hope the Senate does the same.