Nantahala National Forest
Buck Creek burbles through a rich cove forest high on the slopes of the Nantahala Mountains in southwestern North Carolina. Spared by logging around the turn of the last century, some of the trees here are over 300 years old. Further down, the creek widens and supports a healthy trout population and even the occasional, rare eastern hellbender. Still further, the water flows into the Nantahala River where thousands of whitewater rafters will ride its crests through Patton’s Run and other rapids.
But high in the mountains, the air is still. For now. The Forest Service has proposed the “Buck Project” here. One of the largest timber sales in recent memory in North Carolina, the project aims to create young forest for wildlife habitat through commercial logging, including 150 acres of forest over 100 years old.
It’s true that we need more young forests here. Our forests were largely logged around the same time period so they are relatively the same age which means that certain types of forest that should be on the landscape—like young forest—are missing. But the largest deficit is old-growth forest. Five hundred years ago, old-growth forests dominated this landscape, now there is hardly any left. We are left with describing them as “patches.”
I was shocked to learn in 2019 that the Forest Service was proposing to log existing old-growth forest as part of the Buck Project. Young forests can be created almost anywhere simply by cutting down an existing forest. Old-growth forest takes hundreds of years to develop—hundreds of years during which the forest is sequestering and storing carbon and, over time, providing unmatched biodiversity values. Trading a 200-year-old forest for a 5-year-old forest made no sense to me.
Along with our local partners, we pushed back. Time and again, the agency explained that nothing prevented it from cutting old-growth forest. Ultimately, we were able to save some of the best existing old growth in the area from the buzzsaw. Following regional Forest Service guidance, the agency also designated some maturing “patches” of forests to be managed as future old-growth—in other words, managed to allow it to fully mature into old-growth condition.
With these experiences in mind, we’ve pushed the agency to protect old growth as part of its current forest plan revision. Unfortunately, our success record is mixed. The recently released forest plan provides no protections for old growth discovered during plan implementation and instead defers decisions about how to manage newly discovered old growth to local staff—the same people that have been telling us that nothing prevents them from harvesting old growth as part of the Buck Project. Worse, the plan leaves significant amounts of documented, existing old growth in management areas with a timber emphasis. And even worse, many of the “patches” the agency designated for future old growth management in the last plan did not carry forward in the new plan. What is the point of managing something for future old growth if that management approach only lasts a handful of years? It’s a shell game. It takes centuries for old growth to develop.
These experiences underscore the need for a strong, nationwide rule that ensures these areas will be protected. We must put the age of old-growth logging behind us—certainly the biodiversity and carbon storage tradeoffs are not worth it. At the same time, we need to protect mature trees that are on the brink of becoming old growth so that we can recover what has been lost across so many of our landscapes. This too would provide an immense carbon and biodiversity benefit and would move our forests closer to the magnificent forest they once were before they were cut down in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is time for the Biden administration to act to protect mature and old-growth forests.