The tall canopy of mature trees that graces the forests near Brevard may be attractive, but the old growth masks a subtle side affect: a less-than-the-best environment for some creatures that would instead benefit from younger stands of trees and grassier expanses more indicative of what the forest used to be.
That was one upshot from a hour-long presentation Friday by forester Nick Biemiller during a Transylvania Natural Resources Council (TNRC) meeting
Biemiller is forest conservation director for the Ruffed Grouse Society.
Ruffed grouse numbers across Appalachia have declined 71 percent since 1989, but while the name implies concern solely with this one bird (due chiefly to habitat loss) Biemiller said the grouse are a ‘bellwether’ species and as populations have dropped other birds such as the prairie warbler and quail plus animal species have declined with it. Ruffed grouse are a game bird, but in a rising-tide-raises-all-ships scenario preservation of this indicator species helps other wildlife, too.
Biemiller said “alarm bells are sounding” across the Appalachian range, including Transylvania County, and “the pretty dramatic reduction is really concerning.”
At its core is the loss of what he calls young forests and grasslands that once were staples of the landscape.
After the mountains were heavily logged and grasslands turned into cattle pastures 80 to 120 years ago, what regrew “is undoubtedly beautiful, but from a habitat perspective, the unnatural single age canopies are not providing the habitat lots of species depend on.”
Fires that thinned aging timber as part of a natural process were controlled, denying young forests swathes of area to grow. There was no mix of old and new forests.
Less than two percent of the Appalachians are considered young forests. Climate change is also a factor with drought conditions alternating with higher intensity weather events, including flooding.
Precious habitat is, however, beginning to re-emerge. Working with other public and private entities — including timber companies and landowners, the Ruffed Grouse Society helps to coordinate “dynamic forest restoration blocks” from a few to thousands of acres where work is underway to restore this critically important landscape. More than 25 such projects are now underway in Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky, but Biemiller said the long range plan will involve the mountains on the Transylvania County side of the Blue Ridge.
The TNRC also heard updates on a variety of projects closer to home.
- Nearly 8,000 pounds of debris was removed from an illegal dump near the Macedonia Bridge up N.C. 215 along the French Broad River. Boulders were placed at the access point to deter more illegal dumping. Trees blocking the French Broad continue to be removed before they can cause riverbank erosion. A portion of the work is paid for by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.
- The Waterfall Keepers are helping to spruce up areas around waterfalls, including one instance of graffiti marring a rock face near a popular waterfall. The Guion Farm parking area near DuPont State Recreational Forest is undergoing work and will open in April including a new restroom. Trails to Rainbow Falls at Gorges State Park are closed through March for maintenance. Destructive wild hogs are also being trapped nearby.
- A fundraiser will be held at 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 26, at Ecusta Brewing to raise money for a new trout aquarium at the Brevard Visitor Center.
Riverfest 2023 will be June 17 from 10 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. at Champion Park in Rosman.
Brevard Mayor Maureen Copelof updated the city’s participation in the proposed 19-mile Ecusta Trail on an old rail line between Brevard and Hendersonville. Eight miles are within Transylvania County. She said the city is working with property owners adjacent to the trail to “mitigate concerns” including access to private property.
A federal grant is paying for design and engineering of Brevard’s portion of the trail although construction won’t start until 2025 as a federal grant for more than $21 million is sought.
Other issues involving the trail: location of trail heads, safety and security, bridges and how to manage the trail where it comes within 50 feet of the runway at the Brevard airport.
Copelof also updated the group on the early stages of planning for a new waste water treatment plant.
The current plant operates at 70 percent capacity and handles 2.5 million gallons of water per day.
Any new plant would double that capacity but “the massive project” would cost roughly $65 million and is five to seven years away from being operational.
The cost would require federal aid, said Copelof. She added there was “no way (the city could) pass that along to taxpayers.”