Watershed to be clearcut – planted in tobacco

OK, now that I’ve got your attention — there has been a recent flurry of hyperbole, rhetoric and misinformation regarding the Waynesville Watershed and its management plan. Clearly this flood of ink was designed to influence town elections.

Back in 2004 the town decided by the slimmest of margins (3-2 vote) to place the watershed in a conservation easement. The language of the easement allows for “managing” the watershed and in discussing that management the “L” word came up and the three town officials who voted in favor of the easement were roundly criticized in some circles for advocating the “logging of the watershed.”

By the time this column is out the election will be over but the watershed will still be here. And the easement will still be here. And whoever town officials are, decisions will have to be made regarding the watershed.

To set the record straight, to date there is no watershed management plan. According to the “Summary of Workshops to identify Sustainability Indicators for the Waynesville Watershed Final Report Prepared by Peter Bates, John Hagan, and Andy Whitman Nov. 10, 2006”: “In 2006, the Town of Waynesville entered into an agreement with Western Carolina University to develop a comprehensive forest management plan for the watershed. The plan is being developed by the Western Carolina Forest Sustainability Initiative (WCFSI), which is housed in the Natural Resources Management Program at WCU, though individuals are contributing to this plan representing a variety of universities and organizations. The plan is to be completed in the spring of 2008.”

Dr. Peter Bates, associate professor of natural resources at WCU and one of the founders of the WCFSI said that he hopes the eight-member Watershed Advisory Committee would present a draft management plan to town officials this spring. The town would then decide when to hold public hearings and/or vote on the plan.

I had the pleasure of joining Bates and 15 or so other hikers for a short hike in the watershed this past Saturday (Nov. 3). While there was no agenda for the hike, of course, the “L” word did come up. Bates said he knew of no one who endorsed wholesale timbering on the watershed. He did note that there were some pockets on the nearly 8,000-acre property that did harbor some high quality hardwoods and that an option to harvest in those areas would surely be a part of the draft plan.

But as he stopped in a couple of spots and pointed out how earlier, intensive logging had altered the ecology of the watershed, he emphasized that the over-arching philosophy of managing the watershed was from a restorative perspective. Bates believes that proper silviculture tools such as logging, prescribed burns and removal of exotic species could be used to restore the watershed forest to something similar to pre-Columbian status.

And he was also quick to point out that management tools that would be described in the plan would be suggestions. It would be up to the town to decide what, when, where and if any management practices would be implemented.

But the biggest plea Bates made that Saturday was for the public to become educated and become involved. He noted that the Watershed Advisory Committee has been meeting monthly and that all such meetings are duly listed on the town’s calendar and are open to the public.

The next meeting will be at 7 p.m. Thursday Nov. 8 at Town Hall. It will not be a public hearing and there will not be a public comment component but all are welcome to come and listen and learn about the studies that have been going on in the watershed and see what the mysterious watershed management plan is about.

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