The annual fall hike in the Town of Waynesville’s 9,000-acre watershed took place on Saturday Oct. 29. Around 25 stalwart hikers showed up despite the cold, wet and windy Friday overnight and socked-in, iffy-looking conditions Saturday morning, to see and learn a little about this marvelous resource that the town has preserved through conservation easements.
Dr. Peter Bates, natural resources professor from Western Carolina University, and I led the hike. Bates has been involved with the watershed easements from the beginning and has helped lead a team of biologists and scientists in creating the town’s watershed management plan. I highly recommend that anyone interested in learning about the past and present condition of the watershed landscape and/or the philosophy and science regarding the town’s management plan join one of Bates’ hikes.
For my part, I’m there to try and help people see and appreciate the native flora and fauna of the watershed. My trips are “ambles,” not hikes. We may stop to track down a warbler that sang from the treetops or to examine a wildflower or turn a stone alongside a stream bank to see what we can see.
My group, last Saturday, was shuttled in to where Allen’s Creek empties into the reservoir and hiked back out to the treatment plant. It was a relatively easy, mostly flat (for the mountains) hike of between two to three miles. We were greeted by a few snowflakes at the beginning of the hike, but it was short-lived and the clouds gave way to sunshine. The wind, however, buffeted us most of the day, filling the air with colored leaves. There were a few places during the hike, where we could see the mountaintops, covered in hoar frost and gleaming in the sunlight.
We saw some outstanding fall color up close and were able to gain a little appreciation for the subtle differences that can create dramatic red on one maple and golden yellow on another almost side by side. Most wildflowers were spent but it was easy to identify goldenrod, ladies’ tresses and others by the spent flowers and remaining stems. A few asters were still blooming. We saw heart-leaved aster, white wood aster and one large purple (lavender) aster that I immediately thought was New England aster because of its size but in retrospect could have easily been late purple aster, Aster patens. We also found one lingering gentian.
While there were no binocular-toting birders on the trip, aside from yours truly, there was a general interest. I was surprised at some of the lingering migrants we encountered, including Swainson’s thrush, pine warbler and palm warbler. There was also a group of about a dozen blue-winged teal on the reservoir and the juncos and golden-crowned kinglets had already found their way down to the lower elevations.
Despite the cool temperatures, a little stone turning near one of the creeks in the watershed turned up a two-lined salamander. It’s one that I call Eurycea wilderae, the Blue Ridge two-lined salamander, although, I think the whole group (northern two-lined, southern two-lined and blue ridge two-lined) is still in flux as to what may be species, sub-species, races etc. Another amphibian we encountered was a small (this year’s) American toad.
These watershed hikes are always a wonderful way to get outside. And getting outside in these mountains is always an enjoyable experience. If you are a Waynesville resident, these hikes allow you an up close look at this outstanding resource the town (you) owns. The town is charged with protecting its outstanding water quality and that will always be its focus. The town is also cautiously and carefully exploring the future of this watershed and as an informed and engaged resident of the town of Waynesville you owe it to yourself and future generations to learn about the watershed and be a part of shaping its future.
Now to start rumors, I understand that next spring’s hike may offer a brand new option, but the cat’s still in the bag for now.
The first 2011 sojourn into the Town of Waynesville’s 8,000-plus acre watershed occurred last Saturday (June 11). The town has been sponsoring and coordinating a couple of guided hikes into the watershed each year since 2007. It’s a way for residents and other interested parties to see this wonderful resource that has been placed in a conservation easement to ensure the town has an ample supply of high-quality drinking water for generations to come.
For those of you just awakening from a seven-year coma, there was a bit of a stir back then regarding some of the attributes of the easement. Some areas of the watershed are in a “forever wild” easement — which basically means hands off. However, a large portion of the watershed is in a “working forest” easement — which gives the town the authority (and perhaps even the directive) to actively manage the forest. And “active” forest management includes logging — a term that, justifiably, sends shivers up and down the spine of many environmentalists/conservationists.
There was an immediate hue and cry (some perhaps politically prompted) regarding the motivation for and the consequences of logging in the watershed back in 2004. While emotions fer and agin logging the watershed ran rampant at coffee shops and in “letters to the editor,” the town proceeded in a rational way by creating a public oversight committee and commissioning a study of the condition of the watershed and the creation of a management plan for the watershed. I believe it was during this laborious process of studying the watershed and hashing out the details of a management plan that the idea of hikes into the watershed, where citizens could get a first-hand look, germinated.
The hikes have been well received and this year’s first hike was no exception. Alison Melnikova, assistant town manager and watershed hike coordinator extraordinaire, had to halt registration at 65 for this hike. Forty-nine of those registered showed up!
I must say we were quaking in our boots a bit concerning the logistics of providing a quality experience for 65 hikers. But a big shout out to Dan Callaghan, Forest Stewards’ Americorps apprentice forester; Ed Kelley, photographer/naturalist; and Michael Skinner, executive director at Balsam Mountain Trust for answering the frantic pleas for help and volunteering their time to help create a quality outing for participants.
Dr. Pete Bates, professor of natural resources at Western Carolina University, president of the board of directors of Forest Stewards and lead researcher of Waynesville’s Watershed Management plan, has always been one of the leaders for the watershed hikes. In the early years Bates’ groups never got in much of a hike due to all the Q and A regarding the management plan. But Bates is a stalwart and convincing supporter of the plan and the science used to create it and is always happy to discuss the merits and objectives of the watershed management plan.
This year ,Bates got to stretch his legs and obviously had a good hike: “Overall I thought the hike went well. I had about 20 in my group, and we did about an eight-mile, out and back from the water treatment plant. We saw a variety of forest communities ranging from white pine plantations to rich coves to northern hardwoods at about 4,700-feet elevation. For those in my group, it was a great opportunity to see the watershed and learn more about the town’s efforts to care for its forests.”
We took advantage of Ed Kelley’s photographic skills by offering a last-minute opportunity for those interested in nature photography and had about a half-dozen takers. According to Kelley, “…we did a lot of close-ups and exercises in observation, looking for subject matter, addressed some creative things you can do with your camera when there’s not a lot of great photo subjects, and I answered some technical questions about photography, as well as tried to get them to thinking about using what they saw along the way to plan future photo outings (i.e. a remembering the location of a group of staghorn sumac that will be blazing orange-red in the fall.)”
Michael Skinner kind of floated between groups. Fortunately, he was with my group, with his bird-app, when we had blackburnian warblers overhead. He was able to play the song, coaxing the blackburnian down where most people got good looks. Skinner noted, “I had a few in the group suggest we do this more often.”
As for me, I was doing my usual grand job of spreading misinformation. We encountered some yellow mandarin (not in flower) and I was trying to think of the other common name for it when “cucumber root” jumped out of my mouth. I have no idea why. The plants look nothing alike. There is some similarity in the flowers but even that’s a stretch. I guess I’ll write it off as a senior moment. The other common name for yellow mandarin is fairybells — sounds a lot like cucumber root doesn’t it.
The Town of Waynesville is negotiating with its biggest water customer, trying to take a stronger role in the future of how — and to whom — it sells water.
The Junaluska Sanitary District, which provides water to some of Haywood County’s biggest customers, like Haywood Community College and Haywood Regional Medical Center, is in talks to sign a contract with the town for how much, and how little, water they’ll buy from the town over the next 10 years.
For Waynesville, these are pretty essential talks. Junaluska Sanitary District already serves a sizeable chunk of the county. Should they decide to expand that business — which isn’t out of the question — it could catapult Waynesville into the spot of de facto regional water supplier, not a role the town board is necessarily amenable to.
Equally, without a contract, the town could be spurned by its biggest customer, which would dent revenues and stick them with the bill for system upgrades they’ve done for JSD.
The original impetus for the contract was a $500,000 grant up for grabs from the N.C. Rural Center. JSD was poised to scoop up the money to expand or improve their water system, but they ran into a hitch: the Rural Center wanted a signed contract, guaranteeing that the flow of water from Waynesville would continue.
There had been a contract once before, signed in 1994 and expiring in 1999, but since then, the two groups had been operating essentially on a good-faith basis.
But with the need for a contract imminent, Waynesville then seemed to realize that it was in their best interest to formalize the relationship, too.
Currently, Junaluska Sanitary is an at-will customer. The town could shut off their taps anytime. Likewise Junaluska Sanitary could decide to buy water from Canton or Maggie Valley.
As the town’s largest water customer, losing their business would make the town’s investment in infrastructure to serve Junaluska for naught.
“If they decide to walk away from us, we’ve put all this infrastructure in,” said Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown.
Perhaps a larger concern, however, is that Junaluska Sanitary may decide to get into the business of regional water transport, courting larger municipal customers like Clyde and boosting their demand from Waynesville dramatically.
Brown said the debate is a philosophical one.
“We don’t really want to tell them who and where they can sell to, but to dome degree we do. Yes, we sell water outside the city limits. And we want to sell it, but we want to know where it goes,” Brown said.
And that’s been the sticking point in negotiations with the JSD, who originally came to the table with a minimum daily purchase of 50,000 gallons, which is a pittance compared to the 400,000-plus they currently average each day. On the other end, they pitched a maximum daily amount of 1,250,000 gallons, an astronomical number that the town could technically accommodate, but would have to do some major upgrading to guarantee pressure and steady good service to everyone on the lines. It’s nearly a third of all the water Waynesville currently supplies to all of its customers.
“The concern we have is do they have aspirations to expand the system elsewhere?” said Town Manager Lee Galloway, who was slightly worried by the high- and low-ball figures thrown out by the JSD board in the initial contract draft.
In essence the town is concerned about being made a regional water supplier without their knowledge or consent, and with very little recourse if that happens.
In theory, Waynesville could terminate JSD as a customer if the latter began demanding more water than the town wanted, or was able, to give. But with vital public entities like the hospital, HCC and Tuscola High School all hooked into, and dependent on, water flowing through JSD’s lines, Waynesville would be hard-pressed to make such a drastic move.
Meanwhile, if the JSD were to ever see a better deal for water elsewhere, the town would be left holding the bag on all the infrastructure upgrades it’s made to accommodate them.
For their part, the JSD has said it doesn’t have any hidden agendas up its sleeve, and that the numbers in the original contract were just that — simply numbers. Their role, they say, is to provide water to people in the county who ask them for it, and they need this contract if they want to make the improvements necessary for that to happen.
“There are a few producers of water in the county, and there are plenty of people in the county that need water, so we have a statutory obligation to provide it,” said Burton Smith, the attorney for the district who is handling the contract. “In terms of how rapidly we grow, if we grow, those are decisions in part made by the [JSD] board and in part made by people who come to them and ask for water. We do not actively discourage or encourage anybody to do anything.”
But towns that provide water aren’t obligated to sell it to people outside their town limits. The choice to extend lines and expand water service beyond their borders is their own.
Since development often follows water lines, Waynesville doesn’t want to unwittingly contribute to sprawl by funneling more and more water to JSD for expansion, Brown said.
Waynesville has said that they’re happy for the JSD to grow, but within reason and with a little notice. They did concede to drop some contract wording that would’ve forced the JSD to come to them when they were considering new customers, but they also got the district to come down on their maximum limit to 750,000 gallons a day, which Galloway said will still require some system upgrades, but nowhere near what they’d need for 1,250,000.
In the end, said Mayor Brown, the discussions aren’t adversarial, but he sees the town as a public service concerned mainly with keeping the public good in view, while JSD, he said, is taking a business approach that sometimes clashes with the town’s view.
The contract is still with the town for review, and both sides said they expect to reach a workable solution soon.
Waynesville town leaders are weighing whether to conduct selective logging of an old white pine plantation in the Waynesville watershed, a protected 8,000 acre tract whose creeks feed Waynesville’s drinking water reservoir.
While the town permanently protected the watershed from development and large-scale logging several years ago, it left the door open for limited forest management as the need arose. Despite public outcry, the town board maintained that limited timber harvests would be used sparingly and wisely — if at all — and only when the overall health of the forest stood to benefit.
Logging would not be pursued for purely a profit motive, they claimed at the time, nor would it jeopardize water quality of the headwaters that supply Waynesville’s drinking water.
Indeed, the logging being recommended today is being billed as environmentally beneficial.
Foresters, along with the town’s watershed advisory board, have recommended thinning out an old white pine plantation to make way for hardwood trees, which have more ecological benefits.
The harvest plan calls for cutting most of the white pine trees from a 10-acre area. The white pines are widely spaced, and hardwoods have already started growing up in the understory. Removing most of the white pines will allow the hardwoods to mature.
The timber harvest plan calls for selective cutting on another 40 acres, where the white pines are much denser and about 30 years old.
“The idea is to thin this stand,” said Rob Lamb, executive director of Forest Stewards, which has spent several years studying and assessing the watershed’s ecology to develop a long-range forest management plan.
Thinning will increase the vigor of the remaining white pine, plus let some light in to the forest floor to accelerate the re-establishment of native hardwoods.
The far more healthy and valuable stand of white pines left standing could be harvested 20 years from now while allowing for the re-establishment of natural forest at the same time.
Lamb believes it is a win-win-win scenario. He said the watershed will benefit ecologically by phasing out an old white pine plantation in favor of hardwoods, while the town will likely see some profits from the harvest. The logging company that gets the winning bidder would also make money.
Charles Miller, a Waynesville native who lives near the watershed, doesn’t like the idea, however. He was an outspoken critic of timber harvesting in any form or fashion during the debate over the issue five years ago and instead advocates a hands-off management approach.
Miller said the white pine stand is dying off anyway, and hardwoods will take over in their own time.
“The pines are dying. It would be better to have that dead wood on the ground and regenerate the soil than to go in there and destroy that,” Miller said.
Miller said logging will tear up the ground and trample the small hardwoods that have already taken root.
Miller said it is likely a done deal though, citing the outcry that ensued five years ago, to no avail.
“We turned in a petition with 600 names on it and they ignored it,” Miller said.
Town leaders voted 3 - 2 to reserve the right to conduct limited timber harvests in the watershed if deemed ecologically sound. While the watershed emerged as an election issue, those who favored forest management provisions kept their seats.
Peter Bates, natural resources professor at Western Carolina University and president of Forest Stewards board of directors said the harvest plan doesn’t jeopardize the town’s primary goals of conservation and water quality protection.
Town manager Lee Galloway said he feels the Town is ready to “take action” on the white pine harvest plan.
The recommendation comes from the Waynesville Watershed Advisory Board, which Galloway says is comprised of people knowledgeable of forestry practices as well as ordinary citizens. It is also based on a comprehensive management plan for the watershed created by Lamb and Bates,
After the comment period the town board will ultimately decide whether or not to go ahead with the white pine harvest.
“If they decide to go ahead and we advertise the timber sale it could be several months before the bid is completed,” Bates said.
Lamb said he is confident, “… we will get some good bidders.”
Spring in the watershed
The Town of Waynesville’s annual spring pilgrimage to the Waynesville Watershed will be Saturday, April 24. This one will be set up similar to last fall’s event with an early morning birding option. Those who want to look for early Neotropical migrants and lingering winter visitors should meet at the treatment plant at 7 a.m. For directions and details regarding the trip, please go to www.egovlink.com/waynesville/action.asp?actionid=9348.
Spring migrants are arriving across Western North Carolina. Blue-headed vireos have been in my yard for a couple of weeks now. On a quick trip up around Harmon’s Den last week, Bob Olthoff and I heard black-throated green warbler and Louisiana waterthrush, as well as blue-headed vireo. Brown creepers have also been singing in my yard. I hope we at least get to hear a couple on the 24th – it’s a really cool, musical little ditty.
Other reports from across the mountains of Western North Carolina include northern parulas, black-and-white-warblers, black-throated blue warblers and returning broad-winged hawks. By the 24th of April, we should be able to add scarlet tanager and rose-breasted grosbeak to the list. And one never knows what the reservoir itself might produce. While it’s nowhere near as productive as Lake Junaluska with regards to migrants, waterfowl do find it occasionally and there is generally a belted kingfisher present. We were treated one spring to a brief flyover by an immature bald eagle.
By 9 a.m. birders will be back at the treatment plant and have the option of joining in the day hike or heading for coffee and beignets (I guess that would be doughnuts in this part of the world, what a shame.) Day hikers will split into two groups. I will lead the ambling, looking, listening and sniffing group. We will keep our eyes and ears open for birds, wildlife and spring ephemerals.
The wildflowers should be poppin.’ I have bloodroot, toothwort, trout lily and various violets blooming in the woods around my house now. Other spring wildflowers we could encounter include trailing arbutus, Dutchman’s breeches, squirrel corn, trillium, bellwort, anemone and showy orchis.
Dr. Pete Bates of Western North Carolina University, who has headed a team of scientists and natural resource managers to create a management plan for the Waynesville watershed, will lead the robo-walkers. Pete, who is much more learned and accomplished than I, actually has the ability to walk and talk at the same time. This is a great hike for those who want to stretch their legs as well as their understanding of the ecology of the watershed.
The worst thing that could happen is that you get the opportunity to enjoy a spring morning outdoors, in the middle of this outstanding natural resource that Waynesville town fathers had the foresight to preserve, protect and enhance in perpetuity.
Slogging through the watershed
It was dark, 39 degrees and a steady light drizzle when I walked from the house to my truck last Saturday morning at 6:30 a.m. By the time I got to town, the rain had stopped, and when I arrived at the treatment plant at Waynesville’s watershed, there were five brave souls huddled in the dark under the eave of the building waiting for me.
The last email I had received from assistant town manager Alison Melnikova said that 14 people had signed up for the short birding excursion before the annual fall watershed hike. I was surprised to see that nearly half had showed up under conditions that would have had many seasoned birders turning off their alarms and rolling back under the covers.
As we were trying to figure out logistics, Alison showed up in a town 15-passenger van. We all piled in the van and drove a mile or so into the watershed. The wind was steady and the rain was intermittent. We decided to keep Alison and the van nearby in case the rain became steady.
As one might expect on a cold, windy, rainy mid-October morning, it was pretty quiet up in the watershed. We had Carolina chickadees and tufted titmice around us at just about every stop we made on our way back down to the dam. We also heard a tom turkey gobble and we saw crows, an unidentified accipiter — either a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk, a yellow-bellied sapsucker and heard blue jays.
At the dam around 8:30 a.m. we found a small flock of palm warblers and some ruby-crowned kinglets. We walked out on the dam. All the reservoir yielded — other than beautiful views of the mountains through wispy tatters of fog — was a pied-billed grebe and a belted kingfisher.
The 9 o’clock hikers were arriving down at the treatment plant and since some of the birders had signed up for both hikes, we decided to walk down and join them. But when we got to the intersection of the main road down to the plant and the spur road across the dam, we ran into a flurry of activity. We found a scattered, jumbled up mixed flock of migrants. There were rose-breasted grosbeaks, Swainson’s thrush, wood thrush, blue-headed vireo, gray catbird, Tennessee warbler, palm warbler, eastern phoebe and more. Before we could sort through everything, the 9 o’clock hikers were headed up the road into the watershed.
We walked down to the plant. I thought we had a respectable morning considering conditions and time birded. We finished the morning with just over 20 species. A couple of the birders peeled off, headed for hot coffee and drier climes. The rest jumped in my truck and we headed back to join the other hikers.
While conditions were damp, hikers’ spirits weren’t dampened and most reveled in the snow we encountered at around 4,000 feet. I didn’t do a head count but estimated that there must have been around 30 hikers, a really good number considering the conditions.
Remember to keep an eye on Waynesville’s Web site for information regarding next spring’s hike.
The team of experts conducting an ecological assessment of Waynesville’s 8,600-acre watershed has collected so much data that they have had to hunt down a bigger software package that can actually handle the load.
“We cannot fit this on Excel,” said Dr. Peter Bates, the director of Western Carolina University’s natural resource and conservation management program who is heading up the study of the watershed.
One of three creekside stations that collect data on water quality every five minutes has already generated more than half a million data points.
As overwhelming as that sounds, Bates said the data is “good to have” as he updated Waynesville town board members at a meeting last week. Waynesville conserved its giant watershed several years ago, protecting the town’s pristine drinking water supply. The town engaged Bates and his team to develop baseline data that will gauge both water quality and forest health over time.
While the former has been relatively straightforward, the latter has been difficult to define, according to Bates.
“It’s a little more fuzzy than water quality,” Bates said. “It’s ambiguous how you actually quantify in numerical terms what a healthy forest is. What we’re trying to do is create or increase natural diversity.”
Bates said diversity is the key to healthy water, plants and animals.
According to him, cutting down white pine trees would actually help create that natural diversity, since those trees were never native to the watershed anyway. Waynesville residents planted them in the late 1800s and early 1900s to stabilize the soil after they started harvesting the land.
Now, the white pines are more harmful than helpful to the watershed, according to Bates.
“White pines are shading other trees out, keeping them from coming in,” Bates said. White pine themselves are stagnating because they were planted close together and compete for sunshine.
If these trees are cut down, the end result would be more sunlight, moisture and all-around vigor for native plants and the forest floor.
When Waynesville placed the watershed in a conservation agreement several years ago, town leaders reserved the right to cut trees on the property rather than create an untouchable lockbox.
The prospect of future logging has caused controversy in the past, but as leaders promised at the time, it won’t be happening any time soon. Waynesville officials are being deliberate and gathering as much public opinion as well as scientific data as possible before making any decisions.
“The trees aren’t going to be cut for a long time,” Bates said.
Bates said he’d like to see more yellow poplars, oaks and ash trees in the watershed, as well open savannah-like pine forests reestablished along the ridges.
In the meantime, the team studying the watershed will continue working toward a complete forest inventory to keep track of any changes in forest conditions over time.
The team has also observed that some culverts and improperly graded gravel roads were causing impure water to be channeled into the stream. The team has accordingly begun a study of every road-stream intersection in the watershed.
Norm Christensen told the Waynesville Watershed Advisory Board (WAB), representatives from the town and a few interested onlookers that despite heavy logging in the past the forest ecosystems in Waynesville’s 8,600-acre watershed were, “remarkably healthy” and “remarkably intact.” Christensen, founding dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and currently professor of ecology at Duke, spoke to the WAB at its regular meeting Jan. 10.
By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer
An issue that caused a firestorm of controversy for Waynesville’s current town board is rearing its head in this election cycle — and may prove to be a defining factor in how voters cast their ballots.
One hundred and twenty people or so took advantage of Waynesville’s first Watershed Appreciation Month to see and learn more about the town’s 8,600-acre watershed. The program ran the last three Saturdays in April and included hikes and presentations in the watershed plus programs at town hall.