The summer campers gather at the trailhead, among the balsam firs. They’re all teenagers, all wearing backpacks, all about to set off on a two-mile hike to the gazebo at the top of a hill overlooking Lake Logan. Nearby are a few old cabins built from chestnut trees that were felled generations ago. The largest cabin, a lodge called the Sit ’n’ Whittle, is decorated with old logging tools including a go-devil and a pickaroon, along with a large crosscut saw that was found embedded in a tree where a logger had left it years before. Inside this building, some of the biggest decisions affecting forestry once took place, but that history hasn’t caught the attention of the campers.
Right now, their focus is on the landscape. This property sits within a ring of green mountains, a skinny, mile-long lake at its center. There’s zero cell phone service and only sparse Wi-Fi. Lake Logan doesn’t even register as a place on the latest North Carolina highway map. And aside from a now-green bronze plaque beneath a Norway spruce on the other side of the lake, there’s no overt mention of what this place meant for the forest that surrounds it. Or, for that matter, what it meant for forests across the country.
It takes a half-hour to reach the gazebo. Toward the end of the hike, counselor Robert Townsend picks a leaf off a tree and convinces his campers to take a bite. They pass it around, some looking at it with suspicion, nipping off bits. One teen has a revelation mid-munch: “It’s sour.”
“It’s called sourwood,” Robert replies.
With his shaggy hair, flannel shirt, and sparse but purposeful facial hair, Robert looks only slightly older than the summer campers he’s leading up the hill. As he walks, he keeps picking off sourwood leaves and shoving them in his mouth. He likes the tongue-smackingly bitter taste, one that a fellow counselor calls “tasteable, not edible.” Once, Robert says, he had a leaf collection, and ate half of the sourwood in it.
His enthusiasm for trees is not contained to the sourwood. He bemoans the woolly adelgids that are killing hemlocks and the blight that largely wiped out the American chestnut. He knows his maples from his hickories and sassafras, as he well should. At the gazebo, high above the lake, campers gather around him to listen. “Did you know,” he says, holding two leaves, one skinny and one fat, “that these are both red oak leaves?”
“Are you about botany or biology?” a camper asks. Well, both, Robert says, but he’s more into forestry. That’s his major at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, where he’s a junior.
“My mom took botany,” the camper replies, “and she’s always like, ‘Look at this plant, this is a blah blah blah.’ ”
Well, that’s not really what forestry is, Robert says. It’s about managing forests, and “to manage a forest, you are managing light,” he explains.
To get more light, you have to remove trees. Sometimes a few. Sometimes a lot. “If nature runs its course, trees fall and die,” Robert says. “We can speed up that process. If something’s screwed up in the forest, we can turn it back to where it should be.” People tend to think forestry is all about saving trees, which, in many ways, it is. But, he adds, “sometimes you have to cut trees in order to save others.”
“Logging is not forestry,” says Devon Gentry, the operations director at the Cradle of Forestry in Pisgah National Forest, the historic birthplace of forestry. “It becomes forestry when you apply science.” Not rocket science, mind you, he jokes: “It’s much more complicated.”
Here on the Cradle’s property, a rolling green expanse that runs along U.S. Highway 276 north of Brevard, are countless examples of the complex issues found in our woodlands. The overabundance of tulip poplars, for instance — foresters would like to see more red oaks. Both trees can become massive, but tulip poplars grow faster, and, eventually, they can beat out the oaks. In one spot on the campus, a year-old clear-cut — performed to show visitors what happens after trees are cleared — is sprouting shortleaf pines, along with other new plants and trees.
“Sometimes you have to cut trees in order to save others.”
Gentry pulls up an ordinary-looking seedling, but the roots — they smell like root beer — give it away as sassafras. In the forest, appearances can be deceiving, and, as a result, sometimes the best intensions can lead to bad forestry. For example, going into a stand of trees and pulling out all of the trunks at least 16 inches in diameter makes economic sense, since trees like oaks and poplars fetch more money when they reach that size. Other smaller trees are left, and it would seem like being selective would be a better move than mowing down every single tree. But often, the trees that remain aren’t the best trees. They’re gnarled, diseased, or a less desirable species, and you can actually hurt the health of a forest by leaving them behind. “It’s a removal of the fittest,” says Andy Tait of EcoForesters, a group that works with private landowners to practice restoration forestry on their land.
On the other hand, a lot of people find it painful to see trees come down, or to watch a quiet, shaded spot in the woods turn into an open, stump-filled clearing. But with the right forestry plan, the forest will return stronger than before.
The Nature Conservancy has long promoted the benefits of controlled burns — where land is allowed to burn with careful supervision — and the recent wildfires around Hot Springs and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, have highlighted the importance of setting small fires to prevent larger, more devastating ones. But it was only recently that the group sent out a newsletter explaining how mechanical timber harvests can make forests healthier and more resilient. The reaction has been mostly positive, says Megan Sutton, the Southern Blue Ridge program director of The Nature Conservancy’s office in Asheville.
Gentry, who works on the grounds where American forest conservation and management began, also says it’s the right approach. “It’s not really forestry,” he says, “if you’re not cutting trees.”
Within sight of the smokestacks of a paper mill in Canton, three dozen teachers are shuffling into an auditorium, munching doughnuts and drinking coffee. They’re about to take a tour of the mill, but before that, Rob Elliot stands before them and tells them to look at their coffee cups. The paper in them came from the mill up the street. Elliot then holds up an empty carton of orange juice. Its paper is also made here. Then, he holds up what looks like a lollipop stick. “Probably our most persnickety customers,” he says. “You don’t want to pick up a cotton swab and see a piece of bark in it.”
Elliot is “the guy who buys all the wood” for the mill, he says. But he’s also a registered forester, which means he’s licensed by the state to go into the forest and, basically, write a prescription for what it needs. Want to harvest timber more sustainably? Restore wildlife? Want to attract better game for hunting? People like Rob Elliot know how to make it happen.
As the teachers take their seats, Elliot launches into the history of forestry. The railroad had arrived just a few years before George Vanderbilt created the Biltmore Estate in the next county over, laying a private railroad spur to bring in supplies. Those railroads and the lush surrounding forest made Canton an ideal place for the Champion Coated Paper Company to set up a new paper mill, which eventually became the largest in North Carolina. The town next to the mill flourished, and the tens of thousands of acres around it became Champion Paper land. After the company clear-cut the land, it had little use for it, so the acreage was sold to the federal government. The property became, as one headline put it, “the lands that nobody wanted.”
For a period in our nation’s history, trees were expendable. The unfettered id of American industry sheared entire forests down to stumps. Woodlands disappeared because lumber was profitable, or because trees were in the way of America’s relentless push westward. At one point before the Civil War, 90 percent of all American energy was produced by burning wood. Old black-and-white photos of mountain hills and hollers look shockingly bare to our eyes but for the occasional black trunk sticking up or fallen oaks littering slopes like matchsticks.
For a period in our nation’s history, trees were expendable.
Over time, though, things changed. Toward the end of the 19th century, Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks were established. By the early 1900s, Teddy Roosevelt was talking about the environment and its role in the “common good.” And in between those milestones of the conservation movement, George Vanderbilt hired Gifford Pinchot to be his forester at Biltmore, and Pinchot set about restoring the forest, while also turning a profit by selectively logging it. This method had been used in Europe but never in the United States. Thus, American forestry was born.
When Pinchot left — he became the head of the U.S. Forest Service and, later, governor of Pennsylvania — Dr. Carl Schenck replaced him, and created the Biltmore Forest School on the grounds to train young men in American forestry. (The campus is now preserved as part of the Cradle of Forestry.)
Eventually, Schenck was booted off of Vanderbilt’s property for not making the forest profitable enough, and he moved his school to a Champion logging camp, near what would become Lake Logan, where it continued to graduate foresters until 1913. The land management techniques introduced by Schenck continued to bring new life to the forests. Later, the U.S. Forest Service bought up hundreds of thousands of acres in western North Carolina, and today, Pisgah and Nantahala national forests cover more than a million acres across 18 counties.
And the old Champion Paper mill still sits right in the middle of it, churning out tons of paper rolls at a time. It’s not what it once was, though: The mill itself is cleaner. The wood they buy is more sustainably sourced because more companies demand it, because more of their customers demand it. But that wood doesn’t come from Nantahala or Pisgah national forests, which surround Canton for nearly 60 miles in every direction. That may seem like a good thing, but some say it’s actually a problem for the health of the forests.
“The Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests are ecologically out of whack,” Sutton says. Basically, the issue is this: Nearly all of the trees are middle-age, mostly 80 to 100 years old. A healthy forest is diverse, with some young trees and some old growth, and a variety of species and wildlife. What you have in many of North Carolina’s national forests today is a closed canopy. Think of what you see when you look off into an unbroken area of wilderness from, say, an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. “We need what we see, but we have way too much of it,” Sutton says.
When you’re thinking of the health of an entire forest, imagine a gauge: At one extreme, the forests are gone, entirely clear-cut, destroyed for profit. At the other, the forests are completely left alone, a true wilderness. Before the birth of modern forestry, the needle was pointing toward destruction. Then, as the decades ticked by, the needle started moving toward the middle, albeit not always directly in the center. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Sutton says, the national forests in western North Carolina were being cut at an unsustainable rate. Environmentalists led a public outcry. In 1994, the U.S. Forest Service amended a plan and, in effect, banned clear-cutting.
But forests need edges. So, foresters say, some cutting is healthy. Clearings are good. Selective thinning and small clear-cuts here and there let light in. That lets new wildlife in, and allows a variety of new trees to compete and grow. And so, forestry, done right, can reintroduce birds, and give hunters more game to shoot, and fix the water quality of rivers and streams. Left alone, the forest heals itself, but with forestry, it can come back stronger.
The problem is, in Pisgah and Nantahala, practically nobody is cutting trees. Right now, of the one million acres of national forest in western North Carolina, only about 800 acres are logged each year. It’s a pinprick in the vast green carpet that covers the western end of the state, and it’s a number that nearly everybody, from paper-mill owners to conservation groups, wants to see go up.
And it just so happens that they’re all getting their say. The U.S. Forest Service is in the midst of updating its plan for Pisgah and Nantahala forests, which it’s supposed to do every 10 or 15 years. It’s now been 23 years since the last update. This time, the government is trying to move slowly and bring a lot of people to the table, from industry leaders to environmentalists. They all agree, again, that trees need to come down. But where? And when? And how many? And for what purpose? Those have always been the big questions.
Wayne Reece is handy with a chainsaw, but he’s not a logger. Last winter, the wind knocked down a lot of trees, especially hemlocks. “All we were doin’ was cuttin’ trees up,” he says.
The forest heals itself, but with forestry, it can come back stronger.
Reece is a site manager at Lake Logan, and he points out some of the things on the property that hint at what it used to be. “Some people from Champion are buried here,” Reece says as he drives his pickup truck past a cemetery that sits along an old logging road. Those paths require four-wheel drive, because “everything around here is steep,” he says. Between the road and the Pigeon River, on one of the few flat spots around, you can see the remains of an old airstrip. Now, trees and brush have pushed their way up through the concrete.
Canton and the mill are a half-hour drive north from this hilly spot on Lake Logan, with its picturesque lodges and cabins tucked away. The lake itself was created in the 1930s to regulate the depth of the Pigeon River and make it possible to float logs downstream to the mill in Canton. (Reuben Robertson, Champion’s then-president, named the lake for his brother-in-law.) When all the timber had been cut and the small village nearby, Sunburst, was abandoned, Champion built a lodge here with six cabins for company executives.
Champion’s mill still runs — Evergreen Packaging owns it now — but the company itself was absorbed in a merger with International Paper in 2000. Today, the land and buildings around the lake serve as a conference center and summer camp for the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina, but remnants of its history remain, if you know where to look.
Down behind Camp Henry’s mess hall is a little building called Boojum’s Cave. “That’s where they used to party,” Reece says of the Champion executives. The charmingly rustic Sit ’n’ Whittle Lodge is where Champion’s timber barons hobnobbed with luminaries. A photograph from the 1950s shows Champion executives standing with the Rev. Billy Graham and then-Vice President Richard Nixon. The first President Bush visited here, too.
The clear-cut land that surrounded Lake Logan grew back into thick woods, and today, it looks indistinguishable from most other places in Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. One of the trees on the property is a large Norway spruce that sits among others in front of a cabin. In 1951, Dr. Carl Schenck and Reuben Robertson planted it together to commemorate the Biltmore Forest School, which once stood nearby. Back then, the tree was alone. Now, it’s one among many, but the plaque at its base commemorates what it represents: the place where, for the first time, America started to see the forest for the trees.