The U.S. Forest Service has completed an environmental analysis for the Buck Project on the Nantahala National Forest's Tusquitee Ranger District in eastern Clay County. Once implemented, the project will provide important young forest habitat for wildlife through commercial timber sales that over time will also result in more oaks and hickories providing acorns and nuts. The project will also promote unique Serpentine Barrens within the project area through the use of prescribed burning and it will aim to improve water resource conditions through stream improvement projects.
"I appreciate the engagement from state agencies, conservation and environmental organizations, and the public as we developed this project. Everyone is able to find parts of the project where their input made significant impacts but like all compromises no one is getting everything they want," said Tusquitee District Ranger Andy Gaston. "Ultimately we all want a healthy, diverse forest that sustains wildlife and the Buck Project will achieve that by creating young forest that is now largely absent in this area."
Removing patches of older trees gives young trees access to sunlight and water allowing them to sprout and grow. In these openings fruit, nutritious leaves, and flowers attract pollinators and other insects and support small mammals that are prey for larger animals. Openings can be created by natural processes such as storms or intense wildfires but without these disturbances openings need to be created through active management.
Jonathan McCall, Southern Mountains Wildlife Forester for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, was a collaborative partner on the Buck Project. "I am happy to see it moving forward. This area is in dire need of sustainable management work and the Buck Project will help create critical habitat for many of our declining wildlife species," said McCall. "New young forests are vital to many species ranging from the humble honey bee to golden wing warblers and even some game species such as ruffed grouse and turkey. We are committed to helping sustain as many of these species as possible by continued creation of new young forests while moving toward a more natural distribution of all forest age classes. I'd like to thank all of the partners who have helped move this project forward!"
Nearly 70 percent of national forest in the project area is over 81 years old. Across the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests, the trend towards older trees is increasing such that in 50 years nearly half of the forest will be comprised of trees older than 130 years. Only 0.5 percent of the project area is young forest, defined as trees up to 10 years old. Areas which have been identified for timber harvesting have been reviewed by a team of natural resource specialists. The work to be done must meet Federal, State, and local regulations for best management practices to protect soil and water resources.
The Buck Project will leave 96 percent of the 20,638-acre area untouched and will not use clear cutting. Instead it uses a silviculture treatment called "shelterwood with reserves" that leaves some large trees behind. In 30 separate stands over an area of 795 acres, most large trees will be cut to make room for young trees to grow. The average opening in each stand will be 26 acres.
"To do this work we need to harvest timber in areas that don't currently have roads and that has created some controversy," said Gaston. "This is one of the few places in this part of the Tusquitee Ranger District where we can create the young forest that's needed because the analysis area is bordered by wilderness and roadless areas. We've reduced the risk of sedimentation to streams through several measures including reusing old road beds wherever possible."
Other changes to the proposed project based on public engagement and interagency coordination include protections for sensitive areas, old forest communities, rare plants, seeps, streams, and boulderfields.
The Buck Project includes 17 stream improvement treatments to restore stream habitat quality and connectivity and reduce sediment to streams. Additional treatments include thinning and prescribed burning to improve ecological conditions in fire-dependent plant communities like the serpentine barrens.
The serpentine barrens is the rarest and most restricted habitat on the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests. True to its name the serpentine barrens once had fewer trees but fire suppression has resulted in a closed canopy of trees and shrubs. This unique community has over 20 state-listed rare plants and 4 state-listed rare butterflies. Two plants, Serpentine ragwort and Rhiannon's aster, are so rare that this is their only known location in the world. Restoring the serpentine barrens ensures the survival of species that literally have nowhere else to grow.
Work in the project area could begin in 2020 and will continue for 5 to 7 years.
The environmental analysis follows a deliberative, science-based approach with input from a wide spectrum of stakeholders. The Buck Project was introduced to the public in 2017 through the National Forests in North Carolina website, by mail, and at a public meeting at the Hinton Rural Life Center on November 2, 2017. A draft environmental assessment was released for a 30-day notice and comment period on April 10, 2019.
More information is available at https://go.usa.gov/xV3Ew.
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