Twelve Mile Project

Twelve Mile Project

Dan Entmacher on burl of an ancient chestnut oak. Photos by Josh Kelly

By Emma Castleberry

The US Forest Service has proposed a landscape improvement and timber plan for the Twelve Mile area, an 18,000-acre swath of land bordering Interstate 40 in the Pigeon River Gorge. If the project is completed, it will be one of the largest timber projects in the history of the forest.

It might surprise even well-informed environmentalists to learn that logging in a national forest can be a good thing. Part of the reason many are wary about Forest Service timber sales is because they often require road building into wild places, which can interrupt habitat for rare species and damage existing old-growth forest. “This sets up a zero-sum game between proponents of young forest wildlife habitat, the timber economy and folks concerned with those other values,” says Josh Kelly, public lands biologist with the environmental conservation nonprofit MountainTrue. “The Twelve Mile Project took a better approach and brought in stakeholders to figure out how to carry out the Forest Service’s multiple use mission without damaging areas with high conservation value. The result is excellent protection for natural heritage areas and old-growth forest, over 2,300 acres of new habitat for disturbance-dependent wildlife and only one mile of road construction.”

The Forest Service took a very collaborative approach to this project, gathering other federal and state agencies, local industries, environmental and conservation organizations and interested individuals in the early phases of planning back in 2016. “We wanted to maintain a healthy and diverse forest that supports wildlife, provides a sustainable output of timber, improves water quality and aquatic habitat, and improves access to the forest,” says Jason Herron, environmental coordinator with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pisgah Zones. “Together, we identified many things that needed to change on this landscape in order to meet our mission of sustaining the health, diversity and productivity of the forest to meet the needs of current and future generations.”

Since its founding in 1982, MountainTrue has demonstrated its vested interest in National Forest management. The organization played a key role in creating an amendment to the 1987 Forest Plan that produced the more sustainable timber harvest method we use today. In the case of the Twelve Mile Project, MountainTrue informed the Forest Service about the location of known patches of old growth within the project area. “We asked that no existing old growth or North Carolina Natural Heritage Areas be targeted for logging,” says Kelly. “The Forest Service ended up designating many of these areas as old-growth patches that will be managed for old-growth conditions into the future.” Kelly also used old topographic maps to identify clearings that had grown into forest, so those clearings could be rebuilt in the same spots as fields for elk to graze.

Young forest provides an important source of habitat for many wildlife species, including elk and the Golden-winged Warbler, both of which will gain habitat from the Twelve Mile Project. In addition to creating income through the sale of timber, this project will create a more diverse forest featuring a mix of tree species such as shortleaf pine and yellow pine (which have declining populations because of past beetle epidemics); small-patch old growth; and clearings that act as feeding areas for wildlife.

Kelly is confident that the project, if properly executed, will improve the condition of the area. “Success in the project is not guaranteed and will require hard work and follow-through to fix erosion problems and prevent non-native plants from taking over, but the concepts behind the project are sound,” he says.

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