Watauga Demcrat: USFS seeks input on Gorge burn plan

by Anna Oakes

A proposal to burn 16,586 acres of the Linville Gorge has the support of several environmental groups, but a number of citizens have organized to oppose the plan.

Under the plan, announced in a May 18 scoping letter, the U.S. Forest Service will use prescribed fire in the Linville Gorge Wilderness to restore the natural fire regime; manage unnatural buildups of leaf litter, shrubs and other wildfire fuels; and restore fire-dependent ecosystems and woodlands.

The public has until Jan. 15, 2013, to submit comments on the plan by email to comments-southern-north-carolina@fs.fed.us or by mail to USDA Forest Service, National Forests in North Carolina, ATTN: Heather Luczak, 160-A Zillicoa St., Asheville, NC 28801.

“Public feedback will be used to help develop alternatives that will be analyzed in the environmental assessment and considered by the decision maker,” a June 2012 briefing paper on the project stated. “Implementation of the prescribed burns could be a couple years away.”

The area to be burned includes 11,786 acres in the Linville Gorge Wilderness — a designated wilderness area under the 1964 Wilderness Act — and 4,800 acres of National Forest land adjacent to the wilderness.

Burns would occur in four or more separate areas at different times and be repeated every five to 10 years, the Forest Service stated.

“Prior to the 20th century, many parts of the Linville Gorge likely burned every five to 10 years from lightning-caused fires,” the scoping letter said. “Decades of fire suppression have altered the historic fire regime and resulted in a decline in native fire-adapted and fire-dependent communities, including pine-oak woodlands, oak forest communities and two federally listed plant species.”

Buildup of dense live and dead vegetation can increase wildfire intensity, endangering firefighter safety, public safety and private property, the Forest Service said. The Nature Conservancy, the Western North Carolina Alliance and Wild South support the plan.

But opponents of the plan question the effectiveness of controlled burns in removing fire load and undergrowth.

A website called “Save the Linville Gorge Wilderness” — at http://www.savelgw.org — points to the Forest Service’s burn of nearby Dobson Knob in March 2011. Displaying a photo from the knob said to be taken in August 2012, the website said much of the burn area was full of scorched and dead trees and debris on the ground, “more fire ready than ever.”

In addition, the removal of canopy and ground cover that help hold moisture caused the area to be drier, the website said. A contributor to the website did not respond to a message seeking comment as of presstime.

Stevin Westcott, press officer for the U.S. Forest Service, said he had seen the photo on the “Save the Linville Gorge” website and believed it was taken in an area burned by wildfire, not prescribed fire.

In photos taken in June 2012 provided in the U.S. Forest Service briefing paper, trees in Dobson Knob appear unharmed while the forest floor appears clear of debris, other than large logs, seedlings and a thin layer of leaf litter.

A petition on the website change.org, signed by 92 people as of Tuesday, calls on citizens to comment on the proposal in an effort to “stop (the) U.S. Forest Service proposal to burn the Linville Gorge Wilderness.”

Prescribed fires do not always go as planned. Last month, Pilot Mountain State Park in Surry and Yadkin counties was subject to a 675-acre wildfire when an 180-acre prescribed burn jumped across containment lines into steep terrain. And in June, a controlled burn planned for 1,500 acres in Craven County’s Croatan National Forest escaped and burned more than 21,000 acres.

A few commenters on the petition site were skeptical of the forest service’s ability to maintain control of burns in the Linville Gorge, known for its rugged, steep terrain.

Westcott said only around 1 percent of controlled burns escape containment lines, however.”Instances of fire escaping from controlled burns are rare,” he said.

Westcott said the Forest Service has a plan in place to protect the residential community of Gingercake Acres, which is located close to Linville Gorge.

Opponents’ other argument against the Linville Gorge burn plan is that interfering with the forest belies the area’s designation as a wilderness and instead makes the gorge a “managed forest.”

But Josh Kelly of WNC Alliance that fire is a natural process that should return to the Linville Gorge Wilderness. “The biggest change to the wilderness in the past 50 years has been the control of lightning-ignited fires,” he said.

The U.S. Forest Service plans a prescribed burn of four sections of the Linville Gorge Wilderness
every five to 10 years.
More Info

This map highlights four separate burn areas in a planned prescribed burn of the Linville Gorge Wilderness:


This brochure from The Nature Conservancy espouses the values of fire to mountain ecosystems: mtn-fire-brochure.pdf



Originally published: 2012-12-05 13:31:42
Last modified: 2012-12-05 13:35:32


  1. wsadmin on December 6, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    It is only logical to be skeptical of prescribed fire considering the recent escapes at Pilot Mountain and on the Croatan. But the legacy of fire suppression and continued efforts to limit prescribed burning where it is ecologically appropriate will only increase the severity of wildfires and the potential for prescribed fires to escape. We need to look past the mere aesthetics of what a burned forest looks like and recognize that fire is a natural disturbance agent on many of our mountain landscapes. No where is this more true than in and around the Linville Gorge Wilderness. The choice before all of us is should we be proactive with fire management. Wild South and others in the conservation community believe we must and prescribed fire is a responsible and ecologically important step to restoring the wild character and natural communities of the Linville Gorge.

    Wildfire is a natural part of the disturbance regime in Linville Gorge and this proposal will encourage allowing wildfires to play that role used in conjunction with controlled burns. What you will find is that with a combination of prescribed fire and allowing wildfires will encourage a mosaic of fire severity that will promote more biodiversity. You can visit areas in and around the Gorge today that have experienced various fire severity and you will see a variety of ecological conditions where fire has been used under controlled conditions and where wildfires have broken out. In both situations I would argue that it is a net positive for the ecosystems that are adapted and or dependent on fire. So to sum up our position: ending fire suppression and using controlled burns to mitigate heavy fuel loads that have accumulated over a century while also allowing wild fires to interact on the landscape will improve the ecological condition and wild character of the Wilderness.

  2. Mark Kolinski on December 6, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    Fire is definitely a natural disturbance agent on many forest landscapes; no argument there. But disturbance favors some species while negatively impacting others, promoting one set of ecological conditions over another. Fire is a management tool. So is fire suppression. Is either one appropriate on the lands of the National Wilderness Preservation System, where these lands have been set aside to remain”untrammeled” and influenced chiefly by “natural” forces?

    There are several legal, scientific, and philosophical issues that need to be addressed prior to this type of ecological manipulation of a wilderness area, and these issues are best presented in the Prescribed Fires in Wilderness – Case Study, prepared by Laurie Yung, available here: http://www.wilderness.net/fire, in the Fire Management Toolbox. Reading this case study raises a lot of questions that can be answered in different ways, and promoting prescribed fire for its ecological benefits is only one approach. There are serious questions about prescribed fire’s appropriateness and legality within the management framework set forth by the Wilderness Act and subsequent wilderness legislation.

    Here in Alabama, the 2004 RLRMP provides for the suppression of wildfires within USFS managed wilderness areas. The relatively small size of these wilderness areas and the subsequent threat of wildfires to surrounding resources is the main concern. USFS wilderness managers have a lot of options available to them in what they can and cannot do in Wilderness depending on conditions and situations. I would strongly recommend that anyone who cares about Wilderness with a capital “W” educate themselves by reading the previously mentioned case study and submit thoughtful comments on the proposed EA.

  3. Lonnie Crotts on January 16, 2013 at 11:52 pm

    There is a real irony here with WildSouth promoting setting fires in a designated Wilderness area to manage it, all from an organization with a name that would lead you to believe they would respect the Wilderness Act.