Good afternoon. Commercial logging in municipal watersheds is an important and timely topic for our region. Do you see crowds of citizens clambering for their municipalities to log their watersheds? No, but you do see large numbers of the citizens trying to stop such activity. Why is that? Is the public just ignorant on forestry issues, selfish about the use of public resources, and myopic about the values of logging?
Thank you to Dennis Desmond and Nancy Herbert, for putting this panel together and for recognizing the importance of including the 'public perspective' in these discussions.
Until 1987, I did not know much about forestry. That year, we noticed a bare area in the municipally-owned 22,000-acre Asheville Watershed outside Black Mountain, twenty miles east of Asheville. The bare spot was a 19 acre clearcut. (PHOTO)
My telephone call to City officials to find out what was going on led to seventeen years of involvement at various levels in forest issues, locally and on the National Forests.
Distilling my observations over these seventeen years may give us a picture of why there are such contentious relations between the public and municipal officials on this topic. Last year, the entire Water Board in Woodfin, just outside Asheville, was voted out and a write-in candidate, Robin Cape, was elected. This election result was based entirely on the old Board's proposal to log the Woodfin Watershed.
I do not intend for my chronicle here to be simply an "ain't it awful" exercise. Moreover, I know many elected officials and municipal administrators who do not have the attitudes I will describe. But we clearly have controversy in our region and it is important to explore the factors contributing to this strife. My hope is that by laying these observations on the table, our discussion this afternoon will lead to lessons that will make community discussions on this topic more productive in the future.
Observation One: The public is sometimes seen as, not the owner, not the 'stockholder,' not the raison d'etre, but, simply, 'in the way.' That telephone call back in 1987 led to a tour of the watershed and the clearcut. At the end of the tour, we were standing around in a circle in the forest talking about what we'd seen and I asked, "How does the public get involved in decisions for how this watershed is managed?" The reply I got is seared in my memory for it encapsulates for me why there is often such controversy over this topic. The City's forester said "Oh, they aren't involved. We have the forestry expertise and know what is best for the forest. When the public gets involved it just gets chaotic."
Well, that may, in fact, be your experience. (Show rolled up 1988 petition of several thousand signatures against logging the Asheville Watershed) It certainly was that forester's experience and he resigned about six months later. But, you say, that was seventeen years ago. We're more enlightened now. Not according to a friend I talked with on a hike last Sunday. She recounted calling a senior official in the City of Asheville to ask for a copy of the members of the Tree Commission. He asked, "Why do you want it?" She explained that the Tree Commission was being given an advisory role on Watershed management decisions and she wanted to know who is on it. The official then said, "Oh, I know you. You spoke at the public hearing. I know why you want it. You want to call each one of the members and sway them to your view." Astounded at this effort to intimidate her, my friend asked, "Is the information private?" He responded it was not and she simply said, "Please send it to me." He did.
Some people think such attitudes in public officials reflect arrogance or hubris. I think it reflects a poor orientation and training about what public service work really is. In my own experience there is a qualitative difference in dealing with municipal officials compared to Forest Service, Parkway, or other federal officials. I think that whatever differences we have had with at those Federal levels, there is greater respect for public ownership and for public input than we get at the municipal level.
Observation Two: The charge of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) is often used to put down legitimate public concern and public legitimacy. Perhaps there are situations where the greater public good is thwarted by individuals who don't want something in their backyard. Far more prevalent are efforts to minimize legitimate public concerns by throwing that epithet at them. I live near the Asheville Watershed and I've had the "you're only interested in your view" charge put to me, while, I would add, the officials are unable to come up with a credible cost-benefit analysis of what they have proposed.
I remember when I was organizing in Knoxville back in the early 1980s. The Mayor met with very upset citizens in a neighborhood where he was planning to close the fire station. With righteous indignation in his voice, he boomed, " The only reason you care about this fire station not closing is because you live near the fire station." There was silence.
"Well, duh, Mayor," everyone seemed to say. As Robin Cape has noted, "NIMBYs are often the 'canaries in the mine.' They are often the only ones who really know what is going on at a particular location."
I advise public officials, 'Never blame people for being concerned about their neighborhood. You need to show them with good reasons why some action is or isn't in their best interest. But, blaming them because they care creates even more enmity.
Observation Three: Foresters and 'the public' often start from different assumptions about the world. During that four year fight over clearcutting in the Asheville Watershed, we took many tours. Usually the timber industry was represented and we valued getting to know and like them. We'd rib each other and, in fact, learn from each other. Once when we were talking about managing a forest, I was told quite sincerely, "Monroe, if you want to see a poorly managed forest, go out to Joyce Kilmer." I had never been to that national wilderness area near Robbinsville, but I wanted to see for myself and went. What I saw did not look like a poorly managed forest, it looked like a magnificent ancient forest. It touched my soul, like finding something that's been missing and you didn't even know it til you did.
Similarly, that City forester mentioned above once told me that when he sees a clearcut, he doesn't see a scar, he sees the 'rebirth of a forest.'
Another time, when we were fighting clearcutting in front of the viewshed of the Craggy Garden visitor center, a forest service employee tried to show me that I didn't really mind the look of a clearcut, because clearcuts add variety to the viewshed just the way a plowed field or farm does.
In all those situations, I realized that we simply have differing world views. The problems come when public officials and foresters fail to recognize that our non-technical perspective is a valuable part of any public policy decision.
Observation Four: Foresters and public officials too-often fail to give credibility to the public's 'sense of place' or to the public's desire to retain the character of our mountains. To a technical forester, the public's protestations over logging in a municipal watershed often seem vague and 'touchy-feely' when the public appeals to their 'love' of the area. In the Asheville watershed situation, the watershed had once been a thriving community of farms and hunting grounds until the people were run out in the mid 1920s. The dam was actually not built until the early 1950s, lot of years that land could have been lived on. Lots of resentment. When clearcutting began, it was like a sacrilege on their homes and there ancestors.
Similarly, in the recent Woodfin watershed controversy people felt a connection to that land that goes beyond forestry issues and money. Public officials not recognizing and acknowledging, with respect, that connection is what often leads to acrimony.
I remember that we were ridiculed for calling it a 'scar' as if we did not know that the forest would grow back on that spot. What we understood all too well was that if you put a forest in a rotation of clearcutting, it means you are forever creating new clearcut 'scars' even as the older ones grow back. Thus, with ongoing clearcutting, the character of those mountains is, in fact, forever 'scarred' and changed for as long as you can see.
Observation Five: Public cynicism toward foresters and public officials grows when technical presentations are misused or overstated. Though we stopped the clearcutting back in 1991 and a Conservation Easement was put on the property, the logging issue has come back up during the past year. There was (and is) much cynicism about the Plan that was prepared because of its tone and mistaken information. Fire was presented in the plan as a highly probable and catastrophic danger. "Lightning is an ever present potential ignition source. It can strike anywhere with the watershed...." To a lay person, that sounds ominous and we should take quick action, right? To someone familiar with the fire statistics for all the 2 million acres of the national forests in NC, the reality is that in 2003, there were 3 lightning fires burning a total of 14 acres.
The Plan also points correctly to the danger presented by Miscanthus or Chinese Silver grass and other exotic invasives. But the Plan goes on to say that Miscanthus is "highly shade tolerant" and that the grass' "dead stems are retained as new stems emerge creating a flashy contiguous fuel capable of carrying a hot fire very rapidly through a hardwood forest. On steep slopes, a fire in heavy silver grass grown cover would be very difficult to stop." To a layperson that sounds as ominous as the lightning danger. The reality is, according to ecologists I've talked with, that Miscanthus grass thrives in bright sun, not under a closed forest canopy. At the public presentation, the forester even talked of Miscanthus growing up slopes under the canopy, creating a very dangerous fire situation. The only place on the watershed where Miscanthus is growing under a canopy is where it was already established in an open field that has now grown up and the canopy is closing. And that grass is looking less and less vigorous.
Taking advantage of the public's lack of technical knowledge hurts the credibility of even good management proposals.
Observation Six: Different Worlds Part II, Different definitions of the term "forest health" lead to confusion and cynicism. Earlier I talked about the different worlds the public and foresters live in regarding 'managing a forest.' A related 'different world' that deserves its own special observation is the use, misuse, and confused use of the term, "forest health." In my experience, when a timber-oriented forester refers to a 'healthy forest' or to 'forest health,' he or she means a tract of land that maximizes the merchantable species of trees on it. I remember being told once that if we didn't 'manage' the Asheville Watershed, pretty soon there would just be a "bunch of junk" out there. When I asked what was mean by 'junk.' I was told, "dogwood, silverbell, maple" and other species I had thought were a useful part of any diverse forest. A biologist or ecologist's definition of a "healthy forest," I realized, is quite different and does not have as its basis the ability of that forest to make money but the ability of that forest to sustain complex interdependent biological processes. The cynicism arises when 'forest health' is used in discussions so as to fool lay people or make them think that managing for wilderness is somehow 'doing nothing' and will hurt ecological forest health.
Observation Seven: The purpose of logging municipal watersheds is to generate money. Dancing around that fact creates confusion and suspicion in the public's mind. I have heard the following reasons given for logging in the Asheville watershed: Generate more water for the reservoir; improve 'forest health', better maintain roads, improve wildlife habitat, improve access for emergency vehicles for plane crashes, inhibit catastrophic fire, and slow the spread of gypsy moth..
Whatever grain of truth there is behind each of these rationales, it has been clear that they were simply given as proxies officials thought would make the decision acceptable to a public that would reject the real reason: making money.
My experience is that, because the reasons given are often just 'fluff' reasons substituting for the real one, making money, little documentation or thought goes into formulating them. For example, when they told us in 1988 that the reason for creating a forest rotation of clearcutting in the Asheville Watershed was to generate more water for the reservoir, we decided to study the issue.
A group from our community toured Coweeta Hydrological Lab in Otto, NC and learned all we could about run-off. We learned that road construction is the real danger-point for soil disturbance that could cause undesirable levels of sediment in the waterways. We learned that logging can be done without damaging sedimentation, but that if you mess it up, you have a difficult problem to correct. And, we learned that clearcuts do increase run-off. But we also learned that, as previous clearcuts grow up and absorb more rainwater, one has to continue clearcutting to sustain a desired level of runoff,.
So, we asked the logical management questions. How much additional water will the clearcutting plan generate for the reservoir? And, how many acres will you have to clearcut each year to sustain that amount of runoff?
City staff hadn't even thought about it. It took two years of public hounding to get them
to answer that question, one which eventually the good folks at Coweeta gave them. When the
answer was revealed, they dropped that rationale completely, on the spot. Even they had to admit
that such levels of clearcutting were unsustainable and clearly would put water quality at risk.
Observation Eight: Municipal foresters/officials, in pursuit of logging, often ignore the
broader managerial context. I.e., Because you can technically do it doesn't mean that
doing it is managerially desirable.
Observation Eight: Municipal foresters/officials, in pursuit of logging, often ignore the broader managerial context. I.e., Because you can technically do it doesn't mean that doing it is managerially desirable.The recent Asheville Watershed plan said this: "Any visible impact that may be discernable (from the Blue Ridge Parkway) will be more than offset by the multiple benefits from the activity." The "activity" referred to included multiple, ongoing 5 to 10 acre clearcuts for habitat manipulation and 50' strips-read, linear clearcuts-- along the roads. The forester did the plan not consult the property's Conservation Easement which prohibits even-aged management and has as one of its two primary purposes, protection of views from the Parkway. The forester also failed to indicate why creating edge habitat is necessary in the first place.. He failed to see the Asheville Watershed in the broader context. There is plenty of edge around the Watershed. Why diminish the large, contiguous, deep-forest habitat becoming so rare in our area?
The bottom line is that foresters and officials bent on logging simply refuse to look at the broader context of this management decision.
Observation Nine: Condescending attitudes toward those without forestry training create resentment and suspicion. There used to be a Forestry Commission in Buncombe County in the early 1990s which I attended. Once a well-respected retired forester proposed that after doing a clearcut, they rename the area a wilderness area. Then, in 80 years, come back and cut it again. "The public will never know the difference." I thought he was joking but there were no chuckles. He really meant it.
From my own MBA training, I conclude that those with technical forestry knowledge often mistakenly presume that they have all the other managerial answers as well. They don't. The failure is not giving legitimacy to the public as having anything to say on the issue.
Observation Ten: Demonizing citizens and groups who raise objections to logging in municipal watersheds exposes the lack of confidence in the rationales being given. In Asheville, we have been shocked at the way a couple of Council representatives have reacted to the public on this issue. After ecologists and others spoke, one councilman said, "I sense there's subversive environmentalism in the room." Another said that those opposing the logging were "just a selfish special interest group." The Mayor said he'd stopped reading the 300 emails he got when the subject line read "Logging in the Asheville Watershed." He persisted in saying the Plan was "not a logging proposal."
Such distain does not serve the public and, in fact, makes the public even more suspicious of the rationales given for carrying out the logging. One wonders 'why the short fuse?' What are they hiding?" One cannot help but conclude that some officials want to carry out the logging simply to show the pubic they are in charge, a kind of macho attitude that is unrelated to the managerial facts on the table.
In the Asheville case, the forester preparing the Plan made proposals that were in direct conflict with the Conservation Easement. He had not even consulted with the Trust holding the Easement and his key recommendations had to be removed right there in the Council meeting. Such shoddy preparation received no criticism and yet, citizens who raised the inconsistencies were demonized. Is there any wonder there is such contention on logging in municipal watersheds?
Conclusion: There you have my observations. Admittedly, it is not a pretty picture. What are the lessons to be learned? Where do we go from here? The ideal would be for everyone on all sides to sit at the table with respect, to lay out on that table for open discussion all the 'real' reasons for municipal watershed logging proposals, and for all sides to acknowledge and evaluate honestly the broader context of the public's concerns beyond technical forestry matters.
I think it is important on the public side that we not be deterred by officials' attempts to demonize or trivialize our concerns. It is equally important that we be an example of the kind of rational discussion and presentation that we expect from municipal officials: we need to do our homework as well. It is also important that we affirm and support those administrators and elected officials who do exhibit professional qualities and respect for the public. And there are many of them.
We in the public should also recognize that municipal officials often lack full information and may know even less than we do about forestry issues; that they are under very real budgetary pressure to find additional sources of revenue; and, that they may be operating in an 'us-them' autocratic atmosphere that long-preceded this issue.
In this political decision-making context, getting to the ideal I've described will not be an easy or quick process. It is my hope, though, that by having a big-picture perspective of this managerial playing field, we will all re-double our efforts to make it a reality.
* * * * * *
Note: An abbreviated version of this talk was given at the SAMAB conference to accommodate time constraints.
Other speakers were:
Dennis Desmond, Land Trust for the Little Tennessee
Jim Vose, Coweeta Hydrological Laboratory
Forrest Westall, NC Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources
A. Lee Galloway, Town Manager, Waynesville, NC
Steve Henson, Southern Appalachia Multiple-Use Council
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