In August 2019, heavy rain from Hurricane Dorian flooded Hannah Furgiuele’s home near the Ivy River in Barnardsville, North Carolina. The house was destroyed, and pandemic supply shortages kept her from restoring it. She was at least able to raise the house two feet above the floodplain.

Then, when Hurricane Ida struck last August, water flooded her barn and a neighbor’s home.

Her six acres of land at the base of the north fork of the Ivy River, a section of the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest with 70-foot waterfalls and old forests known as Big Ivy, are located in the floodplain. Severe weather, fueled by climate change, is making existing flooding concerns worse—and while the forest provides some natural resiliency, there may soon be less forest coverage.

The Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, released a draft 20-year plan in January that proposes opening up 4,000 acres of Big Ivy to timber harvest, including land near Furgiuele’s property. Removing trees can increase both the magnitude and frequency of flooding, and private land in the area is already being clear-cut.

Fewer trees means fewer root systems to naturally absorb heavy rains. Furgiuele worries about both flooding and her well water, as increased runoff can flush sediment and other pollutants into the system.

Furgiuele, who is vice chair of the North Carolina Sierra Club’s executive committee, said she understands that national forests serve multiple purposes. But she thinks the federal plan erred in not granting protection for all of Big Ivy by designating it what’s called a “Special Interest Area.”

Timber sales are barred in these areas, although thinning, fire, or other management techniques can still be used. The draft plan does designate 11,500 acres of Big Ivy as a Special Interest Area known as “Big Ivy/Craggy Mountain Forest Scenic Area”—but stops short of granting the designation to the entire region. Locals like Furgiuele, as well as the City of Asheville and the Buncombe County Commission, are advocating for the agency to expand the area.

“I worry that the places they are choosing to pull resources from are areas that should be prioritized for protecting headwaters or rare species that have a right to be there,” Furgiuele said.

The draft plan opens more than 100,000 new acres in the Pisgah-Nantahala to timber harvests that environmental groups say should be protected from logging. The neighboring forests together create one of the most biodiverse regions of the country and attract upwards of five million visitors a year.

Old-growth forests are typically defined as having trees at least 150 years old, with layered canopies, as well as fallen trees that provide rich habitats. Although the plan protects 265,000 acres of old-growth, about 12,000 acres are still subject to timber harvests, according to an inventory that conservation nonprofit MountainTrue has kept since 1994.

A downed tulip poplar creates a water feature in a creak in the Big Ivy area of Pisgah National Forest. Photos by Mike Belleme
Stinging nettle, mosses and other plants grow on a “nurse log” in the Big Ivy area of Pisgah. Photos by Mike Belleme

During a 60-day objection period that ended March 22, stakeholders submitted more than 800 eligible objections to the plan. (In comparison, recent forest plans for the Chugach National Forest in Alaska, as well as the Cibola, Carson, and Santa Fe national forests in New Mexico, received a combined 104 objections.) A final version was expected on June 21, but due to the high volume of objections, the process has been delayed.

The Forest Service is now scheduled to meet with objectors in early August, after which the agency’s regional forester is expected to issue a response.

The plan, which was developed over a span of eight years and in consultation with environmentalists, hunters, tribes, and other interest groups, attempted to balance demands. But the agency is in a bind to maintain an economically viable timber program, said Sam Evans, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, one of the groups that filed objections.

“The Forest Service knows it’s going to have to push the boundaries of what is ecologically appropriate and sometimes go beyond them in order to make its timber sale program economically viable,” Evans said.

The last 20-year forest plan, issued in 1987, set out to clear-cut 4,500 acres per year in Pisgah-Nantahala. Thousands of constituents objected, demanding less clear-cutting and more environmental protections. The agency was also criticized for selling parts of the forests at prices lower than what it cost to do the harvesting.

One 1990 sale on Bluff Mountain, for example, resulted in a net loss of $162,637 after the price of building expensive roads and transporting the timber out of the forests was taken into account.

Public pressure forced the Forest Service to amend the plan in 1994, reducing annual timber harvest goals by about half. Timber harvests began to fall at the turn of the century, and the number of logging companies in the state has shrunk by about a third over the last 20 years.

An average 800 acres of timber have been harvested in Pisgah-Nantahala per year since 2001. Under the new draft plan, up to 3,200 acres could be cut each year, for both forest management and commercial timber sales.

The Forest Service says the draft plan would allow for greater flexibility in an ecosystem that is expected to change over the next two decades due to climate change. But critics fear the plan’s lack of specificity would give the Forest Service discretion to sell off timber in vulnerable places.

“Unfortunately, without specific direction in the forest plan and with the history we’ve seen in the past 40 years, we know there’s going to be lots of cutting in very healthy, very diverse Appalachian forests,” said Josh Kelly, a public lands field biologist for MountainTrue.

Although the plan does have policies in place to protect streams and backcountry areas, Evans said that hasn’t stopped the Forest Service from logging in controversial areas before.

In 2020, the agency faced public backlash over allowing timber harvests on 800 acres near Buck Creek in the Nantahala. The Service said the project was intended to replace aging trees with younger ones and improve forest health, but many who objected said cutting was happening in sensitive areas.

“What’s a little frustrating about the current plan revision is that, in some ways, it’s a step backward from the 1994 revision,” Evans said. “The same issues are still at play—old-growth and these special wild areas like Big Ivy—but the Forest Service is trying to raise the high-water mark of where it can get to with the timber program again.”

Michelle Aldridge, planning team leader for the Pisgah-Nantahala plan revision, declined an interview for this article, citing the ongoing objection process.

“The objection phase allows individuals who have previously been engaged with us in the revision process to work through concerns before we reach a final decision on the plan,” she said in an email. “Until this process is complete, we’d prefer to let the revised plan speak for itself.”

Intact forests—free from human intervention except for sparse trails and hazard removals—act like giant sponges for both heat and water. They are considered “carbon sinks,” storing carbon that would otherwise be in the atmosphere, while also cooling the planet and regulating the water cycle to prevent flooding. The national forests offset an estimated 16 percent of U.S. carbon released annually.

But across the continental U.S., just seven percent of forests are considered intact. By that definition, the Pisgah-Nantahala is not considered intact, as it was heavily cut in the early 20th century.

What’s left of those forests is a refuge for animals, particularly in the old-growth areas. They’re a Noah’s Ark of sorts, says Dr. Peter Wood, an independent forestry consultant and lecturer at the University of British Columbia.

“As we allow the landscape to heal and recover, it is so important that those little pockets that are left are able to play the role of repopulating the landscape with the bugs, critters, and all the different plant species,” Wood said. “If you get rid of that—if you sink Noah’s Ark—when it comes to recovery of the landscape, you don’t have those species to play that role of ecosystem recovery.”

Top: Craggy Gardens is the most visited part of Big Ivy. Bottom left: Light filters through Elm leaves in Big Ivy. Bottom right: Sycamore roots growing into the stream. Photos by Mike Belleme

A Forest Service study often cited to support logging found younger trees absorb carbon at a faster rate than older trees. But as other scientists pointed out, that argument doesn’t take into account the carbon older trees are already storing. Trees that have been left to age for hundreds of years typically store far more carbon than younger trees.

While both young and old trees have a role to play in carbon sequestration, the combined storage and resiliency of older forests makes them particularly important in an era of climate crisis, Wood said.

Because old forests sequester a large portion of carbon in the soil surrounding tree root systems, they are sensitive to equipment used for logging and roadbuilding. Tearing up this soil threatens to release the stored carbon back into the atmosphere, Wood said.

The current draft is the second developed under the 1976 National Forest Management Act, and the first test of a rule the Obama administration issued in 2012 requiring more ecological protections and public involvement in the process.

The draft plan cites “ecological integrity” frequently, and enacts new protections for 10 rivers, 49,000 acres of wilderness, and 70,000 acres of Special Interest Areas. It expands lands designated as old-growth by 54,000 acres.

The plan also aims to “establish young forest conditions” to “enhance the overall ecological integrity” of the ecosystem and improve their ability to adapt, according to the environmental impact statement released with the plan.

“Timber production will not be the primary purpose for projects and activities and shall complement the ecological restoration desired conditions and objectives,” it states.

Before the widespread cutting of the early 20th century, much of these forests had open canopies with trees of diverse ages, said Orrin Goure, a forester at Columbia Forest Products, a timber production company that harvests yellow poplar from Pisgah-Nantahala. Timber harvests can be completed in tandem with conservation projects to return the land back to some semblance of its natural state, he said.

“Sometimes the public perception might be that they just destroyed that forest, but it’s actually healthier and more resilient than what it might have otherwise been if it’s done in the right places and done appropriately within the right forest types,” Goure said.

Goure said he would like to see more acreage opened up to timber harvests in the Pisgah-Nantahala plan, although he acknowledged the agency’s staffing and funding limitations.

“North Carolina grows more trees than it harvests, so [the resources] are there,” Goure said. “The Forest Service has demonstrated in their analyses that the Pisgah-Nantahala Forests can sustainably harvest more than what they have been under the last plan.”

Dr. Mary Kelly, a retired ecologist who lives in a backcountry area of the Pisgah (and with no relation to Josh Kelly), said she is concerned the language of the plan gives the Forest Service discretion to log “under the auspices of ecosystem restoration.”

Rob and Mary Kelly pose for a portrait along a creek running through their property in Madison County. Photos by Mike Belleme

“To me, the Forest Service has learned a lot from controversy and has built a plan that gives them the ability to do basically anything they want to if someone will give them the money or resources to do it,” Kelly said.

The language of the forest plan mirrors an emissions strategy the Biden administration released last year, which many climate scientists critiqued as sending a conflicted message on forests. While Biden, alongside world leaders, pledged to reverse deforestation by 2030, he has also continued to pursue aggressive logging in important forests in Oregon and Alaska.

Biden issued an executive order in April to inventory old-growth forests on federal land, but he has not revealed a comprehensive plan ensuring forest protections, a frustration for many environmentalists.

“To me, that says it’s not a huge priority,” Evans said. “That is why we worry when we don’t see old-growth protections built into the plan.”

Some groups like the plan. David Whitmire, a local hunter who previously served as the North Carolina Bowhunters Association representative in the district, says opening up more forests to logging could help restore some declining populations, for example.

“We don’t see that as overzealous,” Whitmire said. “We just see that as bringing things back up to speed.”

Species like the ruffed grouse and the golden-winged warbler, two declining native bird species that have lived in Appalachian forests for thousands of years, depend on forest openings and prefer the bushy habitats of younger forests.

Executive director of the North Carolina Forestry Association Dr. John Hatcher said the plan’s allotted acreage opened up to timber harvest to create more of these open woodland forests is “headed in the right direction,” but could be higher.

“Though these harvest levels are improved over the last plan,” he said in an email, they “fall short” of expectations.

On the other hand, certain species of lichen and woodland salamanders need old-growth forests to survive, said Karin Heiman, a consulting biologist who the Forest Service hired in 1990 to do an initial survey of the Pisgah-Nantahala.

“Cutting an old-growth forest is like bulldozing the best art museums, except old-growth forests are much older,” Heiman said. “You can try and get some semblance back again, but you’re going to get a lot of invasive species and it’s never going to be the same.”

With so many stakeholders involved in the process, the new plan won’t satisfy every constituency. But the health of the forest should be prioritized above all else, said Tommy Cabe, forest resource specialist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Tommy Cabe, tribal forest resource liaison for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Photos by Mike Belleme

Cabe said this is the first plan to centrally incorporate input from the tribe, for whom these forests have long been home. The band is developing its own forestry department and is translating traditional ecological knowledge to new practices, Cabe said.

Nantahala, after all, is a Cherokee word interpreted to mean “the sun only reaches the forest floor at midday.”

“Since the role of Western forestry practices has been the focus on these landscapes, tribes have had no choice but to take a back seat,” Cabe said. “Now we’re fortunate enough to still retain some of this knowledge and these concerns, and we’re sharing this with the Forest Service so it can influence management for future generations.”

Managing forests is about having a relationship with the land, he said. Sometimes, that means taking from the forests—but in moderation, he said. The tribe harvests white oak for ceremonial basket weaving, for example.

“We lived within that landscape and took products from that landscape to help us live,” Cabe said.

Big Ivy resident Furgiuele also understands some timber harvesting is necessary but feels certain ecologically significant areas should be off the table. She said the Forest Service, with its historically high staff turnover rate (30 percent of new staffers leave within three years), lacks an understanding of what these areas mean to the people who live here. During the development of this plan, the North Carolina forest supervisor changed twice, in both 2015 and 2020.

“It’s a tricky business to have people moving around the country show up at the time of making decisions about the forests the residents survive and live off of and in and for,” she said. “We’ve had so many conversations, and if they don’t get it yet, are they going to? Or is it just that they don’t prioritize it the way the community does?”

Locals have successfully fought logging in the Pisgah-Nantahala in the past. In 1988, residents fought back against a timber sale in the north fork of the Asheville Watershed; the entire 22,000 acres were eventually protected against logging. In the 1990s, the community launched a successful campaign against a plan to sell 4.3 million board feet of timber from Bluff Mountain. Timber harvests were also postponed in Big Ivy in the 1994 plan amendment, when environmental groups pushed back against a proposal to harvest in a biologically diverse area.

Ecologist Mary Kelly and her husband, Rob, led the “Don’t Cut Bluff” campaign in the ’90s. Now when they walk through the forest, they sometimes pass a white oak stand that had been slated for logging.

“Now you’ve got this massive tree trunk and all the limbs laying around and creating an environment where things can germinate among the soft, decomposing bark and wood mass,” said Rob Kelly. “It makes us feel good that those trees were able to live their life out and, come what may, die of old age.”

Elizabeth Hlavinka is a born-and-raised Texan currently covering health and the environment from Costa Rica. In spring 2021, she served in a youth climate corps restoring national parks and forests across the Southeastern U.S., including in Pisgah.

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