Early seral wildlife species driving forest planning debate in the southeast

Here’s an in-depth article on the ongoing revision of the plan for the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina, featuring the extent to which the Forest should provide early seral habitat (ESH).

Many conservation advocates disagree over whether promoting this specific sort of habitat over others is desirable on a large scale. They also question whether aggressive advocacy for ESH stems more from a desire to conserve species or to boost game numbers and accessibility for the benefit of sportsmen.  

Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council:

The FWCC is a proponent of expanding active wildlife habitat management and restoration through, among other things, more timber harvesting and controlled fires. Central to their advocacy is forest restoration and increasing the amount of early successional habitat across the landscape, including grasses, shrubs and trees that provide food, cover and habitat for wildlife.  The FWCC believes that the future management of the National Forest should target a minimum of 12 percent of forest in an age class of 0-12 years. The need to improve game populations is a central argument of the FWCC and has been cited as a reason to oppose new additions to the wilderness base in several county resolutions.

The Nature Conservancy:

Warwick of TNC said that historically speaking there’s strong evidence that there was a much greater distribution of young forest and more grassy areas across the landscape prior to the 20th century. However, fire suppression has been a primary factor in abetting forest growth that is now lacking in young forest age classes and creating a canopy that is too dense. “Most of the species that are declining in the Southern Appalachian require ESH somewhere in their life cycle,” he said. “If we decide it is important to stem their decline, then there’s no (other) choice than to take an active management role. That means more fire and timber harvesting.”

Southern Environmental Law Center:

Sam Evans, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center and member of the stakeholders forum agrees that ESH is underrepresented in the forest, especially if you look at those tracts in isolation.  Nobody who is actively participating in stakeholder discussions is objecting to increasing habitat diversity, including an increase in harvest for ESH,” said Evans in an email written to CPP. He said that the organizations he works with are “wildlife advocates.” “The truth is, I and other conservation voices are supporting precisely the same goal—restoration of ecological integrity in order to provide needed habitat for all the forest’s native species,” Evans said.

To borrow from the forestry professionals, “ecological integrity is the answer.”  According to the interpretation of NFMA in the 2012 Planning Regulations any way.  What’s muddied the waters in NC is the idea that wilderness designation is somehow contrary to ecological integrity (it limits tools, but the desired outcome is the same).  Not mentioned in the article are which species are or will be vulnerable because of a lack of ESH (this isn’t what the TNC quote said), and it doesn’t really address how the current and expected conditions of private lands should be accounted for.  It does point out that old-growth stands are also underrepresented on the Forest.

20 thoughts on “Early seral wildlife species driving forest planning debate in the southeast”

    • That’s an interesting question. The forest plan revision assessment should provide answers to questions like this, but it is basically silent on ESH (and even more so on any wildlife species that require it); it doesn’t use the acronym, and uses the term “seral” twice: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd532825.pdf

      There’s a discussion starting on p. 51 of historic disturbance events, and it says this: “Associated with other disturbance events (rain, fire) landslides provide the greatest likelihood of truly early seral
      conditions (Lorimer 2001) on the Nantahala and Pisgah NFs.” I’m not sure how helpful that is as potential management guidance. By implication, the rest of the disturbances in Table 12 produce something that isn’t truly ESH.

      The most common source of disturbance (not necessarily producing ESH)? “Commonly cited as the most frequent disturbance type in the Southern Appalachian landscape, gap phase disturbance has the highest importance in sheltered cove forests and stands of later successional and old growth age and character (Rankin and Herbert in press, Busing 2005). The single tree and small tree gaps created range in sizes depending on the event that causes it (wind, ice, disease, senescence, etc.). Research
      reports gap sizes range from 0.05 to 10 ac…”

      The role of fire? “For example, the lack of fire has increased the density of fire-sensitive trees and
      shrubs which have prevented pine and oak regeneration, shaded out grasses and forbs, and reduced the diversity of vegetation across the Southern Appalachians…” But this does not say that it eliminated early seral habitat.

      There doesn’t seem to be any discussion of how much ESH is expected under historic or projected climate conditions, which would be the basis of ecological integrity. There is a discussion for each vegetation zone of “openings.” It might include causes and sizes of what openings exist now, but nothing on how many or how much is ecologically enough. There is also a history of management-maintained “wildlife openings,” with no perspective provided on what they have been based on. Overall, I would say the assessment is not an adequate basis for the forest plan requiring particular amounts ESH.

  1. Thanks for posting this, Jon. It’s well done — and good for us to focus on forest management outside of the US West, for a change.

    “Wildlife biologist Adam Warwick and program director Megan Sutton of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) favor managing the forest on a landscape scale as a sensible approach to ensure a mosaic of disturbances and habitat types across the entire forest and to make sure it’s distributed according to the best science available.”

    Yes, best science available, but also where there are willing landowners.

  2. Ecological integrity is a popular term that seems to focus of the non-human component of the ecosystem and ignores people. This is certainly the case in this discussion of the need for early successional habitat in the mountainous east. The Appalachian Region is among the poorest regions in the nation, vying with the rural south and indian reservations in the west for that dubious honor. For example, McCreary County (population 8,200) in the Daniel Boone N.F., KY has a poverty level of 41.0 (the national average is 13.5). Seems to me that the most pressing needs of the humans in that county are jobs and economic stability.

    Thirty three percent of the county’s land is national forest and the D.B. is harvesting 2% of its gross annual timber growth. The county has 3 small sawmills employing 68 people. With a multiplier of 1.5 this means about 100 jobs. Creating early successional habitat for wildlife by cutting more timber would respond to both human and non-human needs. The only question is how many acres – how much timber. May I suggest that harvesting at least 50% of the gross annual growth (providing employment for perhaps 2000 people) would be a modest, achievable (over time), highly desirable, and sustainable objective.

    • Mac

      Agreed – BUT:

      There isn’t much real quality timber in most places in Appalachia and I doubt that much is being cut on federal lands as Mac indicates but where there is quality timber, I believe that it is in mixed stands of shade tolerant species where harvesting is done by individual tree selection and group selection with natural regeneration so I’m not sure that early seral, young, mature and old growth succession stages apply in all aged shade tolerant stands. I am really rusty on what is going on in my old stomping grounds from my college days at Va Tech. So I mention this to suggest that most of the discussion may be off track while admitting that someone with more current Appalachian knowledge needs to step in here and provide us with some local insight before we get too far off base.

      When I was at Blacksburg, Va, (1963-67) the memory of the disastrous results of clearcuts along the Monongahela River were still pretty fresh in people’s minds and clearcutting on slopes was pretty much a thing of the past. But time marches on and I’d like to get an update from someone in the know.

  3. Early seral habitat …. ecological integrity ….

    From an historical perspective, I wonder how these “modern” ideas fit. In other words, people have inhabited N. Carolina for many thousands of years and, like people always have and always will, they manipulated their environment to better meet their needs. Put another way, they liked to eat! Early seral habitat meant food to gather and to hunt.

    Or, put into yet another way, the idea of wilderness is unrealistic from an historical perspective.

    I think Mac is onto something in that the landscape could be managed to meet multiple goals; i.e., social, environmental, and economic.

  4. First, wouldn’t it be great is private industry could do more to provide higher quality early seral habitat? The are already harvesting the overstory. They could make modest adjustments to vastly improve habitat, such as retaining a few clumps and individual large trees, live and dead. Less aggressive efforts to control competing vegetation (aka biodiversity).

    Second, if enhanced early seral habitat is a goal on federal lands, we should start by reforming our overly aggressive fire suppression policies. If early seral must be enhanced through harvest, it we DO NOT need to sacrifice mature and old forests that are still under-represented on the landscape. Young and mid-seral stands are over-represented. If necessary, those are the stands that should be manipulated to create complex early seral.

    Finally, we should not look at early seral habitat created by logging as really high quality early seral. Logging does not really mimic natural disturbance. It removes too much biomass. So, let’s recognize that unsalvaged fire and other natural disturbance creates truly high quality early seral, while logging creates compromised habitat at best. That being said, the results of logging vary widely, and we should do as much as possible to minimize and mitigate the differences between natural and artificial early seral habitat.

    • Here is a reminder of how well salvage projects can be accomplished. HUGE amounts of unmerchantable materials were flown out by helicopter, or skidded out by tractor skidders. However, some people insist that ‘every snag is sacred’ and necessary. Accusations of salvage clearcutting on USFS lands have not been proven. Today’s salvage projects are more like fuels projects, thinning snags, while leaving ample amounts of snags in place.

    • Although this thread is focused on the US South, it is interesting to note that about 20% of Weyerhaeuser’s Oregon lands are in riparian buffers and other reserves and are off limits to harvesting. This is according to a Weyco wildlife biologist. I think the percentage is closer to 30% in Washington.

    • 2ndLaw

      !st Paragraph – Some do exactly that and in the past had better NSO population growth rates than on federal lands. More to come on that in a future post on the NSO that I’m working on.

      2nd Paragraph – “Young and mid-seral stands are over-represented. If necessary, those are the stands that should be manipulated to create complex early seral.”
      Nice idea, in fact it is part of the NWFP but some sources say it isn’t happening – Checking this out for the future NSO post.

      3rd Paragraph – Too many blanket statements – painting with a broad brush – each situation is different – some natural disturbances create a dessert – logging jobs can mimic good natural disturbances, it all depends on the objectives, prescription and execution.

  5. Great post and discussion, and I’m glad you picked up on this. I’m the quote from the Southern Environmental Law Center. Restoring ecological integrity is much more complicated than creating ESH, and Southern Appalachian forests are as diverse and complicated as they come. What other conditions need to be restored (old growth)? When creating ESH, where, why, how much, and with what tools? What patch sizes in which ecological systems? What frequency of entry?

    We’ve commented extensively on what ecological integrity means for the Nantahala Pisgah plan area, in the all lands context. The models that we’ve used to define reference condition for different ecological systems are all based on assumptions about frequency and scale of disturbance. Many ecological systems in our forests are regenerated primarily through gap phase dynamics, with small patches of succession within an all-aged forest with high permeability for both disturbance sensitive and disturbance loving species, and occasional large patch ESH where there has been (infrequent) stand replacement.

    Creating a “quilt” of successional habitats is not compatible with ecological integrity in most areas of our forest. Even if some areas are off limits, this model of management splits the forest into managed and unmanaged, and it cuts into the habitat for disturbance sensitive species. And if you look at the landscape as a whole, ESH isn’t nearly as rare as old growth.

    Regenerating blocks of forest puts us on a treadmill, where we create even-aged forest and pause gap-phase dynamics for at least a couple hundred years. Unfortunately, there is a long legacy of doing this in our forests, which is why we have less ESH in the aggregate than the models say we should. The question for the plan, with all this in mind, is whether we stay on the treadmill and call it “restoration” simply because we’re meeting some crude landscape scale goal for more ESH, or whether we actually start to maintain or restore the trajectory of second-growth, even-aged forests so that they can be driven by fine scale disturbance.

    There are also some opportunities to make everyone happy, where we can use regeneration harvest to “reset” forest communities that have been degraded by past land uses, such as those with uncharacteristic species composition.

    The idea of wilderness has gotten unfairly dragged through the mud during the conversations we’ve had here. The choice of where and why to harvest timber is not the same as the choice of whether to include an area in the NWPS. Lots of our stakeholders are very comfortable with the idea of backcountry, but not wilderness. That’s because those seem like two very different relationships. With backcountry, we’re making a decision locally to exercise restraint and allow areas to be driven by natural processes. With wilderness, there’s a sense that someone else is telling us what we can’t do, and that changes the relationship.

    Have you ever wanted to do something for a friend or partner, but then they ask you to do that very thing, and then you can’t do it of your own accord? Notice how that takes some of the joy of giving away? It’s kind of like that.

    Anyway, the local participants in this process are conservationists, but they’re thinking of wilderness as a threat to their conservation values. Wilderness advocates here have to bridge this gap. We have to communicate better that we are working on behalf of that relationship of restraint and humility, not against it.

    • Sam- You said
      “That’s because those seem like two very different relationships. With backcountry, we’re making a decision locally to exercise restraint and allow areas to be driven by natural processes. With wilderness, there’s a sense that someone else is telling us what we can’t do, and that changes the relationship. ”

      But isn’t that true? Backcountry tends to be negotiated locally (except for national roadless rules) and wilderness is a “canned” set of prescriptions?

      Also what do folks mean by “ecological integrity” in this context?

      • I think we have a good record of what happens when attempts are made to “locally” designate some type of backcountry management instead of true Wilderness. All the special interest groups (bikers, ATVs, etc etc) immediately insist that their very special use be allowed. The intent of Wilderness is an attempt to keep a few small, unique areas free of artificial uses and mis-uses.
        It is a slippery slope. Can be done in theory, but fraught with pitfalls. And you might create a “good” back-country prescription one year and find in the near future that other needs and desires are demanded. Without true big W protection the Rx can be modified to the point of no protection.

      • Yes, it’s true. The disconnect happens because local negotiations or accommodations with backcountry are only good as against local development. It really is a model of collective self restraint, and that’s a beautiful thing. That’s why I say these local values are genuine conservation values. It’s about personal responsibility for handing down these places and experiences to next generations. If only that were the only thing to worry about! If all threats were local, then maybe we wouldn’t even need wilderness. But wilderness is able to protect those same values against external or existential threats that local restraint and organization can’t stop.

        Ecological integrity is a landscape-scale measure along 4 dimensions–structure, composition, connectivity, and function. You pick a reference condition based on historical disturbance regimes, assuming that the kinds of disturbance that operated historically are the same kinds of disturbance that will provide the habitats needed to give homes to the critters that evolved with those disturbance patterns (unless you have a good reason to doubt that assumption). The trouble with the concept as it is usually applied (with an emphasis on structure) is that it doesn’t force you to address issues of scale: i.e., is a 40-acre clearcut equivalent to 80 half-acre gaps caused by natural tree mortality? That’s why connectivity and function are very important pieces of the puzzle, because they do make you ask harder questions. Is there permeability of habitat for all native species? Are disturbance processes operating at the right scales? Can timber harvest substitute for “missing” disturbance processes? Where and how?

        • How does increased inevitable human ‘disturbances’ factor in, adding to the ‘natural’ impacts you are talking about? My experiences in the “Piedmont” of South Carolina showed me huge areas where management will probably not happen, despite a lack of extra protections (ie stream and river buffers, islands, etc) It sure seems like there are plenty of fast-growing plantations, which used to be cotton fields. Trees grow extremely fast there, and timber production seems like it will be robust for a long time.

          • Great question, and one that relates to “all lands” planning. Southeastern national forests are not well consolidated, and there are lots of nonfederal lands mixed in. In the Southern Apps, human intervention in the past has actually slowed down fine scale disturbance processes by creating even aged forests. Meanwhile, on adjacent state and private forest lands, coarse scale human disturbance is happening frequently. Neither one of these things is “natural.” Forest planners have to look at the unique contribution that federal lands can make, keeping issues of scale in mind.

            • We do need to try to throw out all that history of European ‘disturbance’. It happened in the past and we should not use it as an excuse to do nothing. There are some things we can do something about but, past practices and private land management are things the Forest Service can do nothing about. Yes, I did see the ugliness of private clearcuts, including all the junk so common in those forests. Should we strictly preserve unnatural loblolly pine plantations? Should commercial thinning be banned? Should there be no active management, including prescribed burns? Should we blame the past and block the future?

              I did a lot of forest inventory and there is plenty of diversity in their forests. I totaled 43 different tree species, with 40 of them being hardwoods. Of those hardwoods, 20 of them were oaks. Some of those species were lumped together, too. I saw significant amounts of invasive species, as well.

        • Sam- Oh my goodness. (Note: I know you did not think this up, so I am not criticizing you in any way, shape or form)
          What you are talking about as goals for management sounds more complex than we think, or more complex than we actually can think or analyze, or for heaven’s sake pay for to manage across the landscape. I don’t know how critters who “evolved in” forests of American Chestnut can have conditions that are managed to have the same dynamics (no , not 1840, 1750 or maybe 1100?). And many more people living in the forests and climate change changes.. invasive species and so on.
          Here’s my easier target.
          Protect water and air. Try to manage for animal and plant (and tree) species people care about, given the changes that have occurred through time. Do the best you can to provide protection from fire’s negative effects to the environment and people. Do the best you can to manage recreation users’ conflicts and environmental impacts of recreation. This way people can still fight over timber sales but simplify the analysis and verbiage and not involve everyone else in this incomprehensible intellectual briar patch of reference conditions and structure function dynamics patches ….

  6. We tried that, Sharon. It was called discretionary mulitple-use, and it let the FS pick which uses were most important, until the public got sick of bad choices with its lands. Now (since NFMA, in 1976) the FS must pay attention to how complex and diverse the lands are that it manages, and they have to write plans that protect all species, whether they care about them or not. Plans don’t have to be complicated, but they have to be effective, and that has to be based on sometimes complicated science. (I don’t think Jack Ward Thomas was advocating less science.) Planning does have to account for the way things are now, and the way they are likely to be in the future. The FS also has to find a way to communicate this complexity in understandable terms to the public they are serving. Maybe that is the hardest part, that they should pay more attention to. (“Too complicated” is a cop out.)


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