The Devils Courthouse overlook sits at 5,462 feet elevation on the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 422. The Courthouse Creek area south of Devils Courthouse is included in a proposed logging area, and would be visible from this overlook.
The Devils Courthouse overlook sits at 5,462 feet elevation on the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 422. The Courthouse Creek area south of Devils Courthouse is included in a proposed logging area, and would be visible from this overlook. / Bill Sanders/

Conservation and recreation groups are opposing a Forest Service proposal to log near the popular Devil’s Courthouse area of Pisgah National Forest, while the federal agency says the logging project is necessary for habitat improvement and forest health.

The public has until Jan. 18 to comment on the Courthouse Creek Project Environmental Assessment, which outlines a plan to log 472 acres of what biologists call high quality forest in the headwaters of the French Broad River and adjacent to popular hiking trails, including the Art Loeb and Mountains-to-Sea trails.

“My main objection, personally, is that I love to go up there and hike and fish. It is a beautiful area and has excellent fishing and scenic values,” said Josh Kelly, public lands field biologist with the WNC Alliance.

“Professionally, my objection to logging this area is that it has been noted by many biologists, including state biologists, as the highest quality forest — it has many rare species present. It doesn’t make sense why, when the Forest Service is logging so little of its land base, to log timber of such high scenic, recreational and biological value.”

The Courthouse Creek Project is about nine miles west of Pisgah Ranger Station on U.S. 276 in Transylvania County and is within the 7,120-acre Forest Plan Analysis Area 13. In general, the area is bounded by N.C. 215 to the west and south, the Blue Ridge Parkway to the north and Art Loeb Trail to the east.

The three proposed alternatives outlined in the EA are No Action (in which existing conditions would remain); Alternative B, the plan preferred by the Forest Service; and Alternative C, which would remove some of the recreational roads and trails from the logging area, after its scoping period.

The purpose of the project, said Pisgah District Ranger Derek Ibarguen, is to manage the forest for a variety of goals set out in the forest management plan, including regeneration of oak trees, which provide critical food source for wildlife.

“We have our current forest service plan, and we take that as guidance,” Ibarguen said. “The goals of the project are for promoting oak regeneration by increasing young forest habitats — also known as early successional habitats — and designating old growth. We have designated old growth on 127 new acres. The emphasis is based on restoration of ecological diversity and sustainability.”

According to a Forest Service document on early successional habitats, these areas of well-developed ground cover of shrubs and young trees, lacking in mature tree canopy, are important for maintaining diverse, native flora and fauna. They are also home to several species listed as endangered, threatened, sensitive or of management concern.

Ibarguen said the timber management project would not log highly sensitive areas of old growth forest, including the sections of the analysis area closest to the Blue Ridge Parkway and Devil’s Courthouse, a popular hiking area accessed off the parkway at Milepost 422. The summit of the giant rock outcropping is 5,760 feet high and offers sweeping views.

While logging activities and effects would be visible from this perch, as well as from the long-distance Art Loeb Trail, which runs over Pilot Mountain and through Shining Rock Wilderness, and the nearby Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Ibarguen said there are mitigation measures in place to reduce the impact on the area’s scenic beauty.

“There will be very limited difference in what people will see,” he said. “We have these types of management activities going on throughout the district, and we take precaution because of the sensitivities of those areas. I can’t say it will be a big difference.”

While there are no studies to show the number of people who hike or use this section of Pisgah National Forest, the Pisgah District is known to be the busiest of the forest and of the four national forests in North Carolina. Pisgah, Nantahala, Croatan and Uwharrie national forests together have an annual visitation of some 6 million people.

“We don’t have good data, but the Blue Ridge Parkway and Art Loeb areas are popular areas, more popular than the Courthouse Creek area,” which, Ibarguen said, is the main area where timber cutting would occur.

Potential for harmful impacts

Kelly said he is not opposed to logging in general, which is one tool used in habitat improvement, but there are highly sensitive areas in the Courthouse Creek area that he is concerned about.

“There are about 192 acres of timber harvest planned in an area known as the Pisgah Ridge/Pilot Mountain Significant Natural Heritage Area, which is identified by biologists with the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program as one of the most important areas of middle and high elevation forest in North Carolina,” Kelly said.

Kelly said logging will have impacts on at least three rare species: Vasey’s azalea, the Eastern small footed bat and the brown creeper, a bird that thrives in old-growth conditions. Logging on these steep slopes in an area of high rainfall would also cause erosion and runoff that would negatively affect water quality, he said.

Ibarguen said wildlife, fisheries, botanical and biological evaluations were performed in the analysis area to determine if there were any species that might be negatively impacted.

“Anything found to be threatened, sensitive, endangered or of special concern will not have longterm effects (from the logging project),” Ibarguen said. “Vasey’s azalea is considered regionally sensitive. The project may impact individuals, but it’s unlikely to affect the viability of the species.”

Mitigation measures planned to ensure the viability of the small-footed bat will include leaving some snags and cavity trees in the logging area for bat habitat.

“Also, we will not log immediately adjacent to caves, mines, rock outcrops and boulders. There will be a 50-foot buffer,” he said.

The Forest Service included Alternative C after its scoping period, which would remove some of the recreational roads and trails from the logging area.

Hikers concerned about effects

Ben Prater, associate director of conservation organization Wild South, said the group is happy to see the inclusion of Alernative C in the EA but said the entire logging project should be revisited.

“We are glad that there are concessions put forward as far as removing some areas from logging to mitigate impacts to recreational areas and roads,” Prater said.

“We’re committed to working with the Forest Service as far as restoring the health of the forest, but what we see is business as usual — doing more damage that we’ll have to clean up in the future. We’re concerned about the scale of this project. The recreation assets of the area are such an economic boon to the region. We feel it can do more harm than good as far as ecological integrity and recreational assets.”

Prater said there are also some cultural concerns about logging in the area, which has sections sacred to the Cherokee.

“When you look at the combination of biological, cultural and economic interests, it really is incumbent on the agency to realize timber might not be the best use of that land,” Prater said.

Ruth Hartzler, an Asheville hike leader with Carolina Mountain Club, agrees. She is especially concerned about the potential for spoiled views from the Art Loeb Trail, where she leads hikes every spring.

“The Art Loeb Trail is a long-distance trail on the order of 30.1 miles. It goes over Pilot Mountain and the Blue Ridge Parkway and into the Shining Rock Wilderness, ending at the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp,” Hartsler said.

“This logging project is going to butt up against that trail. It is special. One of the natural wonders of Pisgah National Forest is the indescribable yearly display of pink shell azaleas on the Art Loeb Trail in early May from Pilot Mountain to Farlow Gap and beyond. We schedule a pilgrimage there in early May to see the pink shell azaleas. And if the timing is right, the trout lily is blooming and it’s a bonanza of wildflowers.”

The club, one of the oldest and largest hiking organizations in Asheville, sent a letter to the Forest Service during the scoping period in 2011, opposing the project. The club is also opposed to logging the 200 acres with a state natural preserve.

The public has until Jan. 18 to submit comments by mail or email, Ibarguen said. Forest Service staff will then review the comments and weigh the information as they proceed with the project. He said he will make a final decision by the spring or early summer. It would take a couple of years before the initial project begins, he said.

“There are a lot of positive aspects to this project,” he said. “Improving habitat for the golden wing warbler, which is a sensitive species, improving trout habitat, promoting oak regeneration and wildlife habitat. The Forest Service is trying to implement the forest service plan that says what we need to do for diversity and health of the forest.”