Wild South and Linville Volunteers Tackle Babel Tower Trail

This summer Wild South and Linville Area Volunteers, led by partner Kevin Massey, are hard at work doing some heavy maintenance on the Babel Tower trail in the Linville Gorge Wilderness. Helped out by an agreement with Wild South under the Grandfather Restoration Project, the crew is able to do some much needed work on one of the most popular trails within the Wilderness area.

Volunteers show off stone cribbing on the Babel Tower trail

Volunteers show off stone cribbing on the Babel Tower trail

Crews will be working hard out in the field this summer adding check dams and repairing drainage on steep sections of the trail, adding stone cribbing on heavily eroding sections, redefining the main trail and decommissioning user-created trails near the tower that are causing erosion into Linville River. This is one great example of partnerships in the Linville area and we are lucky to have an amazing group of partners and community volunteers who can steward the Linville Gorge Wilderness! Keep track of the progress on the Linville Gorge Maps blog at www.linvillegorgemaps.org.

Kevin’s great work in the Gorge was also recently highlighted in the Asheville Citizen Times article “Watching out over wild, picturesque Linville Gorge“.

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What Does Restoration Look Like? Saving Hemlocks

Hemlock Preservation from Lisa Jennings on VimeoThis highlight is part of a series of videos celebrating the mid-point of the Grandfather Restoration Project to provide folks with an inside view into what restoration looks like in the forest. 

One of my favorite camp sites when I was younger was in a hemlock grove deep in the Wilson Creek watershed, where I could cool off under the emerald green canopy and the hemlock needles were so thick that I could sleep comfortably on the forest floor. Going back to that site today, it is much different from the magical place of my memories. Now, those towering green hemlocks are dull, grey, and leafless. The forest floor is littered with fallen branches and toppled hemlock trees.

In the last decade there has been a drastic change in the forest communities of the southern Appalachians. Hemlock woolly adelgid, a small aphid-like insect from East-Asia, has decimated hemlocks in eastern North America. First introduced in a private garden near Richmond, Virginia, the adelgid has spread both north and south – from Georgia to New England.

The adelgid attaches to the base of the hemlock needles, where it feeds on the sugars that are being transported from the needles to the tree. Infested trees can be identified by the white woolly mass on the underside of the branch. Over time the adelgid starves out the hemlock, leading to defoliation and eventually death.

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Signs mark treated Carolina hemlock trees

Scientists have yet to find resistant hemlocks in the east, leaving active treatment as the only option to save these iconic trees. Maintaining hemlock forests is one of the main goals of the Grandfather Restoration Project, an 8-year collaborative project to restore 40,000 acres of forest on the Grandfather Ranger District as part of the national Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. Two species of hemlocks grow on the Grandfather District. The more common eastern hemlock grows in streamside forests. The rare Carolina hemlock grows on rocky outcrops. Both species are susceptible to the hemlock woolly adelgid.

The most common way to treat hemlocks for the adelgid is using an insecticide treatment. The Forest Service’s primary chemical of choice is called Imidacloprid. Imidacloprid is mixed with water and injected into the soil around the root system of a hemlock. The chemical moves into the foliage, killing the adelgids as they feed but leaving the foliage unharmed. This both maintains old hemlocks and supports regeneration of new hemlocks near the treated trees.

The other way to treat the adelgid is using a natural predator. Laracobius negrinus, a small beetle from the Pacific Northwest, is a natural predator of the hemlock woolly adelgid. Scientists at the Southern Research Station are studying how these beetles respond to the colder winters in our area, and how we can best use them.

Through the Grandfather Restoration Project, the Forest Service has treated thousands of hemlocks and partnered with leading researchers to release beetles at about a dozen locations on the Grandfather Ranger District. Although we cannot save every hemlocks, we can help preserve the species to ensure this iconic tree remains a component of the forest into the future.

Fighting Fire with Fire: Prescribed fires slow wildfire spread

The call came in at 3pm on a clear, hot Saturday in the middle of July: “We’ve got a report of smoke on Bald Knob north of Lake James.” For those of us responding that day, we had no idea we would be working on the wildfire in the summer heat for nearly a month.

Smoke visible just west of Bald Knob

Smoke visible just west of Bald Knob

As a firefighter for Pisgah National Forest’s Grandfather Ranger District you become intimately familiar with the lay of the land. Some areas evoke fond memories – rolling hills, majestic forests, bubbling brooks. Bald Knob is not one of those areas. The terrain west of Bald Knob is unforgiving. Steep slopes end in sheer cliffs. Thick evergreen shrubs and piled downed trees force you to crawl on hands and knees to get around.

But the area around Bald Knob was not always so unforgiving. Decades of fire suppression and widespread damage from the southern pine beetle outbreak of the late 1990’s changed the structure of the forest. What was once pine-dominated woodland with an open, grassy understory became choked with ingrowth over the years, leading to dangerous wildfire conditions.

Responding to the wildfire that hot, July afternoon, fire managers had a tough decision. Do you send your firefighters miles off trail to dangerous conditions to suppress a lightning fire in an ecosystem where fire would naturally occur? Or do you fall, back, manage the fire, and risk it moving towards private property?

Managers ultimately decided to manage the fire, allowing it to move naturally through the terrain. There was one key consideration that played into the decision – the existence of prescribed fire restoration units on the west, south, and east sides of the fire.

The decision lay with the District Ranger, Nicholas Larson. “We realized from start that this ignition was in a very difficult place to access.  Considering the heavy fuels and inability to use equipment in this type of terrain we knew suppression tactics would have a low probability of success,” Larson said.  “Pair all that with the fact that we have restoration treatments all over this ridge and it really was a great opportunity to step back and think about the appropriate response.”

Lake James Prescribed Burn - January 2015

Lake James Prescribed Fire – January 2015

Prescribed fire has been used as a tool to reduce wildfire risk and restore forest structure in the Southern Appalachians since the mid 1990’s. In fire adapted areas like Bald Knob, wildfire would historically occur every 5-10 years, reducing fuels from leaf litter, sticks, and logs that build up over time. These natural wildfires have been suppressed since the 1940’s.

Under the Grandfather Restoration Project, part of the Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, the Grandfather Ranger District has increased the number of acres managed for fuels reduction 6-fold. Recent prescribed burns around Bald Knob were critical in slowing the spread of the fire. These treatments allowed the response to this wildfire to be one that focused on restoring fire adapted ecosystems and reducing fuels, without putting firefighters at risk.

Fire activity increased on the Bald Knob Fire as the long, hot July days crept into August. The prescribed fire units on the west, south, and east sides allowed firefighters to focus on keeping the fire off private property on the north end of Bald Knob. When the rains finally came in mid-August, the fire had burned over 1,200 acres. No structures were lost. No firefighters were injured.

Last week the Forest Service released a report detailing the effectiveness of the surrounding fuel treatments in managing the Bald Knob Fire.

With increased population growth in the Southern Appalachians, prescribed fire will continue to be an important tool in preventing wildfire spread. The Forest Service prioritizes burns where they can do the most good to reduce fuels, restore structure, and minimize risk to private property. We live near our National Forest because it provides the perfect setting for a mountain home. No one wants to lose their home in a wildfire. As we move into the winter fire season, rest assured that managers are out in the woods proactively fighting wildfire through fuel reduction treatments, restoration, and prescribed fire.

The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy

One of the goals of the Grandfather Restoration Project prescribed fire program is to reduce wildfire risk. While this is a local goal, it is also being emphasized both regionally and nationally. The National Wildfire Management Cohesive Strategy, often simply referred to as Cohesive Strategy, is an effort on behalf of federal, state, local, and tribal governments and non-governmental organizations to collaboratively address growing wildfire problems in the U.S.  It is a strategic push to work collaboratively among all stakeholders and across all landscapes, using the best science, to make meaningful progress towards the three goals:

  1. Resilient Landscapes
  2. Fire Adapted Communities
  3. Safe & Effective Wildfire Response

The vision of Cohesive Strategy is “to safely and effectively extinguish fire when needed; use fire where allowable; manage our natural resources; and as a nation, to live with wildland fire.”

In the last few years, more than 1000 individuals have provided comments, participated in forums, meetings, or responded to online survey requests which have helped guide the Cohesive Strategy process in the Southeast. Direction for the implementation of Cohesive Strategy in the Southeast comes from the Regional Action Plan. The plan contains 23 actions with 124 separate implementation tasks, grouped around five values and a set of identified barriers to success.  A selection of the Regional Action Plan items which relate to the goals of the Grandfather Restoration Project’s focus on ecosystem restoration and the utilization of prescribed fire include:

  • Support the creation of tools to better inform decision making processes and localized trade-off analysis for all levels of fire and land managers as well as planners and policy makers (what specific data means to managers, not just regional analysis of these data).
  • Develop and sustain capability and capacity requirements to plan and carry out landscape treatments, including prescribed fire.
  • Increase public awareness to ensure public acceptance and active participation in achieving landscape objectives.
  • Encourage planning efforts across landscapes between practitioners and land managers to address wildland fire, landscape resiliency and community safety while balancing other concerns and emphasizing plan development in high risk areas.
  • Work with regulatory agencies and entities (i.e., air quality) to ensure that prescribed fire remains a viable management tool and maximize flexibility for its use (including liability issues).
  • Encourage greater public smoke awareness through outreach and understanding.
  • Control invasive species that alter fire regimes and ecosystem function.
  • Support efforts to increase prescribed burning for ecosystem restoration.
  • Promote and use fire to emulate natural disturbance patterns to maintain and improve ecological systems, balancing social, cultural, and economic needs, especially over large contiguous landscapes.
  • Remove policy barriers and process complexities which affect the ability to effectively and efficiently share resources, not only for wildfire, but for fuels and prescribed fire work

Achievement of the Regional Action Plan is a lofty endeavor that will no doubt take extraordinary collaboration, which is the primary intent behind Cohesive Strategy. To read more about regional Cohesive Strategy efforts click here.

Saving a Keystone Species: Hemlock Restoration on the Grandfather RD

Introduction of the invasive Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (HWA) to the Eastern US has wreaked havoc on the native hemlock species, leading to range-wide declines and total loss of hemlocks in many areas in the Southern Appalachians. In late October, the Grandfather Restoration Project collaborative group got together for a fieldtrip to explore potential for expanded work on hemlocks. This includes both treatments of Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (HWA), which have been taking place on the district for close to a decade, and hemlock restoration, which is a new concept both for the Grandfather Ranger District, and throughout the range of Eastern and Carolina hemlock.

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Collaborative members discuss hemlock restoration along the Kitsuma trail

Joining us on this trip were 3 of the leading experts in hemlock research in the Southern Appalachians.

Chelcy Miniat, Research Project Leader from Coweeta Hydrological Laboratory, presented on the hydrological impacts of hemlock loss. Hemlocks provide an important role in riparian forests, regulating stream flow and shading streams from winter sun. As hemlocks die, they are generally replaced by rhododendron, and to a lesser extent water-loving hardwood species. This replacement has been found to lead to higher stream flows in the winter, and lower flows in the summer. Chelcy and her team also tested the effectiveness of the manufacturer recommended treatment dosages for imidacloprid, the main pesticide used to treat HWA on helmocks. Her research determined that the recommendations under-treated large trees, a finding that our silviculturalists can use in their management of HWA.

Bud Mayfield, Research Entomologist at the Southern Research Station in Asheville, spoke about current research on predator beetles that feed on HWA. These predator beetles provided a non-chemical treatment option, and are an important part of an integrated pest management approach to HWA treatments. The predator beetles Bud studies, a species called Laricobius nigrinus, are native to the Pacific Northwest. Compared to other potential predator beetles, they have a higher tolerance for cold Southern Appalachian winters. While predator beetles alone cannot keep up with the adelgid infestations alone, Bud’s research found that combining chemical HWA treatments with predator beetles allowed treatments to be effective longer, reducing the amount of pesticides used.

Robert Jetton, Research Professor at NC State University and Hemlock Project Leader at CAMCORE presented on species conservation efforts. CAMCORE, a non-profit tree conservation organization, has been collecting seeds from Carolina and Eastern hemlock populations in the Southern Appalachians for over a decade. With seeds in cold storage from hemlock populations across the Grandfather Ranger District, CAMCORE provides a seed bank repository for the Forest Service to be used in replanting the species. In addition to seed conservation, Robert is starting work with the US Fisheries and Wildlife Service to map all existing Carolina hemlock populations in order to more fully understand the distribution of the species and its conservation needs.

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Treated Carolina Hemlocks along the Kitsuma trail

The collaborative also discussed current and future hemlock work on the Grandfather. Currently, we are treating Eastern hemlock trees that remain alive on the district, and are working to expand Carolina hemlock treatments with the help of CFLR funding. When treating mature hemlocks, young trees within a 10 meter radius of the treated mature tree also benefit from the effects of the pesticide treatment. However, beyond the ambient effect of treatments on regrowth nearby, there is little chance for young hemlocks to reach the over story, as HWA infests both young and old trees. Thus, planting of hemlocks was discussed as an option to supplement this new generation of hemlocks.

Eastern Hemlocks are considered a keystone species in stream-side areas, where they provide habitat for a variety of wildlife species. Unfortunately, there are no substitute evergreen tree species that grow in the streamside zones that Eastern hemlock occupies in the Southern Appalachians. So, even though there are no existing resistant varieties of Eastern hemlock, planting native Eastern hemlocks back into areas that we are currently treating, and committing to a long-term treatment plan for those hemlocks, is a viable option to ensure the persistence of the species and its role in the ecosystem. The members of the Grandfather Restoration Project are just starting to look at options for hemlock restoration plantings, and will be forming a sub-committee to discuss desired conditions and methods for restoration with minimal vegetation disturbance. We are excited to be working with the research community to take the first steps toward restoring this important keystone species on the Grandfather Ranger District!

Rockhouse Creek Prescribed Burn: First ever Growing Season Burn for US Forest Service in the NC Mountains

Exciting news from the Grandfather! We found a window of rain-free days and were able to pull off our first growing season burn yesterday at Rockhouse Creek. This is the first time that a landscape-scale growing season burn has been implemented on Pisgah or Nantahala NFs (beyond site prep burning). While the stated goal was fuels reduction, we were also looking to further the ecosystem change at the site from a mostly closed-canopy Oak-Hickory forest with little herbaceous growth, to a more open woodland condition with a diverse understory.

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Stats

Date: July 8th 

Size: 560 acres

Location: Wilson Creek headwaters near Roseboro, NC

Purpose: Fuel Reduction

Partners: NC Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, Appalachian RD, Pisgah RD, Tusquitee RD, Cheoah RD, Nantahala RD

Treatment #: 4th (last 3 burns were dormant season, last burn 5 yrs ago)

 

The Rockhouse unit was lit by hand, with lighting crews working along the ridges and holding crews along the roads. While humidity was predicted to drop into the 40s the afternoon of the burn, spot weather indicated humidity in the 60s-70s on the site. A dense layer of Mountain Laurel regrowth on the ridges kept the humidity even higher near the ground. Because of the high humidity, it was difficult to get the site to burn even with receptive fuels.  Generally, following ignition we’d get good initial intensity, but it would weaken pretty quickly.  Intermittent 10mph gusts, cloud breaks, and canopy gaps would help increase intensity and spread, and certainly areas where we would strip farther downslope and get some run upslope helped as well. We were able to blacken an estimated 25% of the burn unit. The burn plan differed from dormant season burns in that care was taken to limit flame lengths to 1-2ft to limit overstory hardwood mortality.  

 

Although only 25% of the unit burned, we count this as a success, both in reducing fuels and allowing fire managers in western NC experience with growing season burns. It also provided a great training opportunity for summer students training in fire from the Tusquitee, Cheoah, Nantahala, and Grandfather RDs to participate in a prescribed burning operation. We will look at conducting another growing season burn next summer, taking into account lessons learned from the Rockhouse site. We will look for burn units with a more open overstory, larger pine component, and a shorter time since the last entry (2-3yrs) to increase the receptiveness of the fuels.

 

6 monitoring plots were installed in the Rockhouse burn unit, and pre-burn monitoring was conducted prior to this entry using the Fire Learning Network protocol. We will conduct immediate post burn monitoring over the next couple weeks, and will look at results again next growing season. I will share that data with the group once we get a good picture of the impacts of the burn.