Asheville has backed away from a study that could have opened the door to logging in the 22,000 acres of city-owned watershed protecting the North Fork and Bee Tree reservoirs. Good.
Councilman Jan Davis summed up the situation pretty well when he said, "This thing seems to have taken a whole life of its own that I didn't foresee." What started out as an initiative to improve access for emergency vehicles, in response to problems following a 2001 small airplane crash, turned into a full-blown watershed study that gave a lot of attention to logging.
The first-phase plan adopted last summer outlined an ambitious program to upgrade roads, repair bridges and clear trees from slopes above roads. The plan wasted no time in bringing up the question of logging. The second paragraph of the introduction begins, "Silviculture ... is permitted." The document said tree thinning, followed later by "small clear-cuts" would help promote regeneration of oaks, which provide important food for black bears.
The council modified that plan to make it clear no logging could occur without council approval, but critics were not satisfied. The plan "would be a foot in the door" for logging," Monroe Gilmour, who lives near the North Fork watershed, told council members Tuesday. The Swannanoa Valley Alliance for Beauty and Prosperity said concern for access and for wildlife habitat "are simply 'Trojan horses' to get commercial logging into the watershed."
"There are a lot of efforts over the past few years to go into our public drinking supply watersheds and turn them into timber management areas," Hugh Irwin, conservation planner with the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, said last summer. "This seems to be the latest effort ... and I think it is a somewhat disturbing movement."
Interim water resources director David Hanks insisted the initiative was not a logging plan. The water system has not had the personnel to keep the roughly 65 miles of roads in the watershed maintained, according to officials. Downed trees hampered access after the plane crash. Additionally, officials were worried about access in case of fire.
The issue before the council Tuesday was a detailed second-phase study closely examining roads, stands of trees and other features. The five-year study would include recommendations, according to Hanks. Among those recommendations would have been what trees could have been cut. "The only way to generate any money is through timber," Hanks said.
Be that as it may, the function of the watersheds is not to produce money, but rather to protect the city's supply of drinking water.
Another issue is the impact of logging on views from the Blue Ridge Parkway. From the National Park Service's Craggy Gardens Visitors Center, the view of the North Fork Reservoir and valley from many vistas along the parkway are among the parkway's crown jewels. A parkway representative urged council at a public hearing this past summer not to go forward with the logging plan.
The council Tuesday decided against the study, largely on the basis that the cost of nearly $300,000 was too high. (There was one bid of just more than $250,000, but staff said the bidder did not have either the assets or the staff to fulfill the contract.) Instead, council told city staff to come back with a scaled-down proposal that would be carried out largely by staff.
Logging still could rear its head again, but it shouldn't. The scaled-back study should concentrate on access.
As Councilman Brownie Newman put it, "If our goal is clean water, the natural processes that have been at work for thousands of years ... do a very good job as long as we don't mess it up."