Standing under a 100-year-old red oak tree in the George Washington National Forest, Judy Strang looks up and worries.
If this 40-acre tract of forest up a steep slope from the Pedlar River gets clear-cut, how will it affect the river, which serves as the source of drinking water for the city of Lynchburg?
“Watershed protection requires forest cover,” said Strang, a writer and founder of the Friends of the Pedlar River. “Anything in the upper watershed of the Pedlar Reservoir should be protected.”
But a sprawling U.S. Forest Service plan that encompasses 11,905 acres aims to clear-cut or nearly clear-cut 41 different sections of national forest on 1,007 acres, as well as initiate a series of prescribed burns across 4,432 acres.
The proposal is part of a forest management plan approved in 2014.
Dubbed the Pedlar River North Vegetation Project, the clearing and burning would take place east of Buena Vista along the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Parkway, west of Oronoco, south of Clark’s Gap and north of the Lynchburg Reservoir in Amherst County.
The public has until Saturday to comment on the first phase of this plan, which focuses on the environmental effects of the project.
In an email response to questions, Lauren Stull, district ranger for the Glenwood & Pedlar District of the George Washington National Forest, wrote, “This public scoping period helps us to learn what issues the public would like us to analyze in the environmental assessment.”
For Strang, water quality is of top importance, something the city of Lynchburg also is concerned about.
“Of course our concern is to protect our water supply,” said Tim Mitchell, director of water resources for the city. “We do want to be careful with any work done in the watershed.”
Mitchell said the city received a “scoping” letter about the project and also was pleased the Forest Service reached out and met with them Thursday.
“We do feel pretty comfortable with their plan,” Mitchell said, but noted that it was early in the process and that Forest Service work in the past resulted in sedimentation and debris ending up in the reservoir.
Mitchell said he probably will take up an offer to visit a site in Botetourt County where the Forest Service is doing similar work.
For Laura Henry-Stone, who teaches environmental studies at the University of Lynchburg, protecting the city’s water supply also is of utmost importance but she has other concerns.
“The plan reduces the potential for old-growth habitat to emerge and for species dependent on such habitat to thrive,” Henry-Stone said. “It’s unethical to remove old trees in a day and age when we need to preserve as many of these trees as possible for future generations.
“It also makes the forest more vulnerable to the predicted impacts of climate change in this area, in particular severe storms that create extreme wind and torrential rainfall.” Severe storms weaken forests, exacerbating erosion and the potential for out-of-control fires.
There is a significant carbon footprint created through the burning and removal of vegetation, the burning of fossil fuels to power heavy equipment and the potential increase in vehicular traffic on expanded Forest Service roads, she added.
Henry-Stone also is concerned about the intrusion of invasive species, negative effects to the viewshed of the Appalachian Trail and an overemphasis on wildlife species for game hunters at the expense of wildlife species valued by hikers, birdwatchers, mushroom hunters and anglers.
“This is really about commercial harvest and it’s being disguised with these other management goals,” Henry-Stone said. “Intact forest is more valuable to society, your community and the globe than harvesting trees for pulpwood.”
Stull acknowledges timber harvesting is one of the reasons national forests were established in 1905.
“The national forests were originally established for two purposes: to provide a continuous supply of timber and to secure favorable conditions of water flows. … Well- managed forests provide the most beneficial land cover for water quality protection.”
The Forest Plan Standards for the GW Forest ensure that no timber harvest or ground-disturbing activities would occur in protected riparian corridors for perennial and intermittent streams, Stull said.
While the Forest Service considers the potential for old growth, the Pedlar plan focuses on creating early successional forests, which occur when you cut down mature forests.
“Young forests are another type of habitat that is just as important,” Stull said. “Young forests include a diverse mix of shrubs and/or tree seedlings and saplings, along with openings where grasses and wildflowers grow.
“The George Washington & the Jefferson national forests host approximately 292 wildlife species which are classified as threatened or endangered, sensitive, locally rare or of public interest.
“Researchers found 125 of these 292 species, all of which use the forest, need early successional habitat for their entire lifecycle needs. An additional 152 species need a mix of early successional habitat and mature habitat in close proximity.
“Only 15 species could cope with mature, closed canopy forests for all lifecycle needs.”
On the Glenwood & Pedlar Ranger District, the Forest Plans only permit timber harvesting on about 25% of the district, Stull said.
All of the proposed harvesting activities would likely occur over a five- to 10-year period via a series of timber sales, Stull said, and would generate 20,000 CCF of sawtimber and pulpwood. Each commercial timber sale within the project will be made available for purchase by sealed bid to the high bidder, Stull said. The Forest Service is allowed to retain a portion of the timber sale receipts to utilize within the project area.
The controlled burn plan covers an even larger area than the harvest area. While fire suppression has created deadly wildfires in the western U.S., it also has prevented natural fires here from burning unchecked.
“The Mt. Pleasant wildfire in 2016 was over 11,000 acres in size and threatened several dozen homes,” Stull said. “Our firefighters successfully saved all of them, where if we had not taken suppression action, there would have been a very large loss of property and possibly lives.”
Stull said prescribed fires are conducted only when wind speed and direction and humidity are ideal and after all planned control lines are constructed and secured.
“The identified burn areas are broken into several blocks to utilize existing roads and natural features to minimize fireline construction and associated soil disturbance,” she said. “These blocks are proposed to be burned individually over a 10-year period, mimicking small natural wildfire events.”
Once the draft environmental assessment is completed for this project, it will be made available for a 30-day comment period.
To comment, write District Ranger, 27 Ranger Lane, Natural Bridge Station, VA 24579, or go to https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public//CommentInput?Project=58783
For more information, contact Nicholas Redifer at (540) 291-2188 or nicholas email@example.com.