Western joins three partners in Little Tennessee Sustainable Forestry Initiative

CULLOWHEE – Two major grants from national philanthropic organizations will allow Western Carolina University to join with three other partners in a project to research sustainable forestry practices and develop a forestland conservation model for the Little Tennessee River basin of Western North Carolina.

Grants of $800,000 from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and $100,000 from the National Forest Foundation will bring together students and faculty from WCU’s department of geosciences and natural resources management and the partners — the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, Duke University and The Conservation Fund, a national conservation organization — to carry out the three-year effort, called the Little Tennessee Sustainable Forestry Initiative.

The 500-square-mile upper Little Tennessee River basin, which covers Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, lies at the heart of one of North America’s most species-rich regions,” said Paul Carlson, a registered forester and director of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee. “Our magnificent mountain forests protect the headwaters of the major rivers of the Southeast and provide abundant wildlife habitat, while producing the highest-quality hardwood timber in the nation.”

Peter Bates, WCU associate professor of natural resources management and lead forester for the project, said a major thrust of the project will be “a program of outreach and education aimed at those who have a stake in the project findings, including forest industry officials, scientists, conservationists, elected officials and community leaders, as well as local landowners.

“Over the years, the issue of forest management has tended to be a polarizing one, with each side defending its own territory,” Bates said. “We believe there is a middle ground that takes into account the need for healthy forest ecosystems, as well as a healthy economy, to benefit the people of Western North Carolina. The forests can be healthy, beautiful and profitable.”

Student interns and staff from Western Carolina and Duke universities will describe and document the current forest conditions; evaluate the effects of “light touch” silviculture from a biological and business perspective; assess efficiency and management methods; and communicate the study’s findings to foresters, educators, land trusts, agency officials and landowners, Bates said.

Of the $900,000 grant total, Western is receiving $339,000 to carry out its part of the project.

Three Western students already have been hired to work part time as sustainable forestry interns during the current spring semester, and the students will work full time this summer, Bates said. Discussions are ongoing with several private landowners and one area municipality to provide assistance in management of their lands, and the students have begun preliminary mapping and stand description work to facilitate that process, he said.

One of the project goals is to provide examples of well-managed forests that work ecologically and economically, said Dan Tinker, WCU assistant professor of natural resources management, who also will be involved in the initiative.

“Southern Appalachian landscapes are historically very dynamic,” Tinker said. “We want to maintain and, in some instances, restore the landscape and its forests to conditions that fall within the historic range of variability. This will, among other things, help preserve or increase native biological diversity.”

To that end, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has provided an additional grant of over $1 million for acquiring conservation easements on private forestlands – what project leaders call “working forest” conservation.

The foundation selected the Southern Appalachians, and the Little Tennessee River valley in particular, to receive assistance because of the region’s track record in effective partnerships, as well as the renowned beauty and diversity of its natural resources, said Eric Holst, program officer for the environment at the foundation.

The $800,000 grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is part of a package of $7.05 million in grants announced by the foundation for forest conservation in the Southern Appalachians. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is based in New York and was established by tobacco heiress and North Carolina native Doris Duke.

Bill Gibson, director of the Region A Council of Governments, an organization of local governments in the Little Tennessee River basin, along with Steve Eller, Region A planner, will lead the community dimension of the project.

“We hope to play a role in refocusing community leadership on the protection of working forests in the Little Tennessee Valley,” Gibson said. “We have agreed to form an advisory group of local business and civic leaders, and we expect this effort to create some opportunities to directly protect critical portions of our landscape. We also believe that asking for the guidance of local stakeholders will ensure that the models developed by this project will be successful.”

Doug Crandall, vice president of the National Forest Foundation, a non-profit organization established by Congress to support the health of the national forests and grasslands, said the community component of the project, under the leadership of Gibson and Eller, “will ensure that this initiative benefits local residents. We are pleased to support this creative effort in partnership with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and other local organizations.”

Western Carolina Chancellor John W. Bardo said the new partnership will be a key component of the university’s efforts to promote the economic and environmental health of Western North Carolina.

“These mountains are a wonderful place to live and work, and we want to do what we can to make sure they stay that way,” Bardo said. “We want the sons and daughters of Western North Carolina to be able to stay here at home after graduation and work in high-quality jobs, while at the same time we continue to make improvements in maintaining the health and beauty of the mountain landscape.”