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Community Forest

I live with my family on a community land trust. It was founded in the 1930s, and we’re told that it is one of the oldest land trusts in the nation. We share the stewardship of 1000 acres of secondary Southern Appalachian cove forest. Most of it is fairly acidic where oaks and heath abound. There are few rich coves tucked away along creeks that are full of spring wildflowers. There’s one precious mountain bog chock full of rare plants, and various other wetlands (some call them fens; botanists call some of them a swamp-forest-bog-complex).

A former student of mine – now a friend – grew up here and recently joined the community as an adult member. He is finishing up his master’s thesis at App State and has planted a small hybrid chestnut population on one of the forest ridges. He is launching a career in forestry, blending his passion for ecology with an eye toward active forest management. He’s bringing enthusiasm for wetlands restoration, invasive management, and prescribed fire to the community and is reviving a community forestry committee. He recently surveyed community members to gather their thoughts about our forests and management practices. I took this task seriously, and figured I’d share my responses here. His questions are in italics.

What are your biggest concerns with the Community forest?

My biggest concern for the Community forest is the loss of diversity due to colonial/invasive species. So far, very few non-native plant species have established themselves and displaced native species within the forest, but they are rapidly establishing in disturbed areas and may work their way in from the edges. When you go to town , you can observe this already happening in the roadside patches of forest. Asheville urban forests are dominated by Chinese privet, English ivy, Asian bittersweet, and a handful of other colonial shrubs and vines. Burnsville forests are not far behind in that regard. We should be careful about creating additional edge disturbances in our relatively undisturbed forest, and we should pay close attention to the edges we currently maintain. I believe our bottom line should be to protect and enhance native forest diversity.

We are fortunate that Appalachian forests' native diversity makes for a stout and resilient forest. But it is not invulnerable. So far the most damaging species have been insects and pathogens that threaten – or have already extirpated – keystone tree species. Over the past century, we have lost, or are losing, 3-4 of our 20 largest tree species. Chestnut blight, hemlock wooly adelgid, and emerald ash borer have each altered and diminished our forests in powerful ways. Over the next century, we will continue to see ripple effects from the loss of these important tree species. We should be vigilant and proactive towards threats to our various forest communities, and we should welcome restoration efforts to bolster or bring back threatened or recently extirpated species (chestnuts, beavers, elk, cougars, etc.).

Forests provide many “services” including: carbon sequestration, watershed protection, firewood, lumber, a diversity of non-timber forest products (edible plants and mushrooms, medicinal plants, etc.), critical habitat for many organisms, recreation, aesthetics, and more.

What are the most important “services” that both forests in general and the Community forest provide?

You listed some of the most important ones. Another important function that forests (our own included) can serve, is to expand our imagination. The author JB MacKinnon writes: “...all of this biological diversity, all these wonderful and amazing and alien things that other species can do is like an extension of our own brains. There is so much imagination out there that we simply could not come up with on our own that we can think of it as a pool of imagination and creativity from which we, as humans, are able to draw ... when we draw down on that pool of creativity and imagination, we deeply impoverish ourselves, in a sense we are doing harm to our own ability to think and to dream.”

Many of our great ideas, arts, technologies, and solutions to problems have been learned from other species and the incredibly complex ecosystems on Earth. The Appalachian forest is one of the planet's most intricate - and wise - systems. There is so much knowledge to be gained from observing and studying it. Diminishing it would be a great disservice to our ability to imagin

Is there anything you would like to see differently with the way we manage and interact with the Community forest?

I believe our management should be guided by Traditional Ecological Knowledge, the most solid science, and intuition of long time residents and observers. Activities that affect the forest (i.e. building, timbering, burning, hunting, gathering, and introducing species) should be done with care and thoughtfulness and based on the above sources of knowledge and wisdom.

Re-introducing lost species like chestnuts and doing what we can to save hemlocks, ashes, and beeches should be top priorities. We should also aid the dispersal and spread of the diverse communities of native herbaceous plants (think rich coves full of spring wildflowers) that have begun to regain a foothold on the forest floor. The richest soils were likely the ones most disturbed by settler agriculture. Aside from the open fields that we are still maintaining for these purposes, we should make an effort to help the rich cove forests recover their original diversity. If we have an opportunity to encourage or introduce other native keystone species like cougars, beavers, and elk, we should participate in that effort. We should protect our native invertebrate and fungi populations that are often unseen, but play crucial roles in the system.

When you imagine your ideal version of the Community forest in 50 years what does the forest look like and provide? What about 150 years?

With the exception of the aforementioned colonizing and pathogenic species, imbalances resulting from missing native species (apex predators, large native grazers, beavers, chestnuts), and lost indigenous practices (fire, certain types of hunting/gathering), most of the forest has been recovering from the century-plus of settler disruption (roughly 1800-1940). We are now getting close to a century of recovery after that great disturbance. Forest has returned to areas that were cultivated, grazed, or logged. Game populations of bear, deer, and turkey have rebounded. Birds of prey have been on the road to recovery since the days of DDT. Beavers have begun to trickle back into the valley. Coyotes have moved in, filling part of the ecological niche that native red wolves used to play. Mainly, I would like to see this recovery continue on its own, with some assistance from us.

Our forest, after 80+ years of recovery, is slowly beginning to mature. In 50 years it will begin to take on what ecologists call "old growth" characteristics. In another 100 years, I would love for there to be a truly old and resilient native forest covering most of Community land. We have little control over how other private (or even public) property in the valley is managed, but it would be wonderful to leave a legacy of several hundred acres of relatively undisturbed old growth forest on Community land. Ideally this forest will be even stronger and more diverse than it is now, as we aim to achieve a better balance in the native ecosystem with protection, management, and reintroduction/spread of native species.

Any additional comments, thoughts, or concerns?

Thanks so much for your energy and your attention to the health of Community forests. It gives me hope to know that we have multiple generations here working to strengthen our forests!

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