Wildfires take toll on joyce kilmer, other WNC forest land
11 February 2017
published by http://www.citizen-times.com
USA — ROBBINSVILLE – The route from Asheville to the remote Joyce
Kilmer Memorial Forest in Graham County is long and lush and winding, helping
build excitement for the towering trees ahead.
Massey Branch and Joyce Kilmer roads pass through the far western regions of Nantahala National Forest, follow the rapids of the Cheoah River, skirt the scenic Santeetlah Lake and end at the beloved old-growth forest.
The trees of Joyce Kilmer – some up to 400 years old, 100 feet tall and 20 feet around - have witnessed the lives of the early Cherokee, and possibly the American Revolution and the Civil War. But now they are struggling with the 21st century and damage brought by historic wildfires that roared across Western North Carolina last fall.
The towering old growth hemlocks have all but succumbed to the invasive and deadly hemlock wooly adelgid, much as the chestnut trees were wiped out by blight in the 1930s. That leaves the giant tulip poplars as the oldest sentinels.
From October to December, WNC's largest-ever recorded forest fires – mostly set by arsonists and careless human activity – scarred parts of Joyce Kilmer, visited yearly by 35,000 people from around the world.
In early February, U.S. Forest Service public information officer Cathy Dowd and botanist and ecologist Gary Kauffman inspected the flame-licked trees and soil in the 3,800-acre forest, which is part of the larger Joyce Kilmer-Slick Rock Wilderness.
With a scientist's eye and his nose to the ground, Kauffman ran his hands through soil and scratched at charred tree bark. And he delighted in the logs covered in lichens such as lungwort, (believed long ago to heal lung illness), signs the forest is still very much alive.
The Maple Springs fire began Nov. 4 in Graham County, merged with the Old Roughy fire and eventually scorched 7,800 acres, including parts of Joyce Kilmer. The memorial forest was established as a wilderness area in 1936 and named for World War I soldier and poet Alfred Joyce Kilmer, author of the famous poem, “Trees.”
Maple Springs was one of 27 fires that burned throughout the Nantahala National Forest, whipped into a frenzy by an exceptionally dry and warm summer and fall.
Only one fire – the Boteler, which burned more than 9,000 acres – was caused by lightning strike.
The fires drew some 3,800 firefighters from across the country and burned more than 45,000 acres, mostly of backcountry forest, Kauffman said.
An additional 7,000 acres burned at the Party Rock fire in the forests and Chimney Rock State Park east of Asheville. More than 11,000 acres burned in Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the North Carolina-Tennessee border.
The Nantahala fires forced the evacuation of homes and businesses in Graham and Swain counties and came perilously close to structures. Wayah Bald Fire Tower and Whitewater Falls access area and staircase burned and both remain closed to the public.
Worry over old growth forest
As news spread of the flames burning into Joyce Kilmer, the tree-loving public and the Forest Service became even more alarmed.
“The fires were still going, it was still dry, we weren’t getting any rain, and the fire was coming on down toward the big trees. We were concerned about the fire getting into the big trees that so many people love," Kauffman said.
Water was dumped from helicopters on the edge of the burn to slow or extinguish the flames to protect the firefighters from falling limbs and trees when working on the edge of the line to put out small hot spots and ensure the fire did not spread.
“Our first priority was safety of the public and the firefighters,” he said.
“But there was a concern and a different strategy with the tulip poplars,” Kauffman said.
Forest Service staff used dynamite to take down giant hemlocks along edges of the trail to keep the fire from spreading and reaching the giant tulip poplars. Resource managers also blew away leaves surrounding the big trees, so the fire wouldn’t have an easy path to the old growth and would cause little damage.
“The fire slowed down and moved over the trail a little bit but didn’t get into the old growth,” he said.
It was one victory for the trees.
And one for the hikers who come to bask in the forest’s grandeur, search the ground for wildflowers, the tree limbs and cavities for birds, and plunk down money at the area lodges, shops and restaurants.
But on the two-mile, figure-eight loop trail through the virgin forest, an eerie, stark stillness singled out lone blackened trees and those with bruising fire scars among the unburned magnolia and rhododendron.
Many charred tree trunks and stumps, still emitting a thick campfire odor, clung to slopes, evidence of how fires burn faster and hotter uphill.
Other trees seemed unfazed by the flames, and dead trees left unscorched were covered with bright green moss and lichens, nestled among patches of ferns.
None of the big trees in upper loop were touched because fire never crossed Santeetlah Creek, so their health was not damaged.
Joyce Kilmer won’t look the same to visitors who have come in the past, but the Partners of Joyce Kilmer, a nonprofit that maintains the trails in the memorial forest, have already been at work to clear trails for hikers.
Partners president Dick Evans said he’s not worried the forest will rebound since fire is a natural cycle.
“I think and hope what people will see is that this is how nature handles things – fire removes smaller brush allowing extra sun to get to forest floor. This spring we should have phenomenal wildflowers,” Evans said.
The forest might have fared worse, Kauffman said, but Joyce Kilmer contains rich cove and acidic cove forest, which contain an open understory, and large, scattered trees and deciduous shrubs. They have a more diverse herbaceous layer and mesic (moist) soil, appealing to wildflowers. The fire here was mostly low-intensity, only burning the leafy duff layer.
To see if the soil of Joyce Kilmer was harmed, Kauffman dug out a patch of dirt and poured in water, to see if it would bubble. If it did, that would mean the soil was hydrophobic, unable to absorb water, with the potential to create sheet flow, leading to erosion and landslides.
Immediately after the fires, the soil did repel the water, but on this day, the soil drinks it in.
“The trees will decompose and not lead to erosion,” Kauffman said.
He believes the huckleberry and blueberry bushes and wildflowers will return, although the forest will definitely look different to hikers who have been here before.
On an unusually warm February day, poking up from the leaf litter as if to say, “It’s OK,” were patches of delicate white hepatica starting to bloom.
Not all fires come up smelling like roses
The Maple Springs Fire, however, did scorch its way into Joyce Kilmer’s 17 miles of backcountry trails, said Heath Emmons, recreation program manager on the Nantahala’s Cheoah Ranger District.
Some 50-75 percent of those trails were badly damaged, Emmons said. The forest was so dry, the fire burned 6 inches into the ground in places, undermining trail tread, which was sloughed away. Substantial rain after the fire caused erosion.
“Some sections of trail were obliterated. There were hundreds of downed trees and fire weakened trees that will fall in the future,” Emmons said.
Because of strict rules for federal wilderness areas, no motorized or mechanized equipment can be used. All the clearing work to rehab the trails must be done with a cross cut saw, making the work labor and time intensive.
The Naked Ground, Jenkins Meadow, Haoe Lead and Deep Creek trails all burned over, Emmons said. The boardwalk to the Maple Springs Overlook was also badly damaged.
About a quarter-mile section of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Trail from the parking lot to the junction of the Naked Ground Trail was closed earlier this week because of damage to a 90-foot section of handrail. There is a 20-foot drop to the creek below.
The Forest Service has applied for funding through the Federal Highway Administration. Work to reestablish trails could take multiple seasons, Emmons said.
But forest service officials say it’s too soon to tell what long-range impacts will be.
“There’s not a short version answer for the effects of the fires,” said Mike Wilkins, District Ranger on the Nantahala Ranger District.
The wildfires began with the Dicks Creek Fire Oct. 23 northwest of Sylva. The Boteler Peak Fire started Oct. 25 on Boteler Peak near Old Highway 64 east of Murphy. The Tellico Fire and Rock Mount Fire burned the largest at 14,000 and 24,000 acres respectively.
Some areas looked like prescribed burns, Wilkins said, where fire is intentionally set in a controlled manner to reduce fuel load to prevent further fires, and to create a more diverse forest and better habitat for wildlife. Other areas were not so fortunate.
“You’ve got areas that killed everything, areas in between where trees will die in two-five years and areas where trees will not necessarily die, but will have a fire scar and might heal over,” he said.
“It got drier and drier and areas where it ran uphill and ran hot, and it was windy and it ran hot, periods where it was backing down at night with high humidity and it cooled down. Fire is a huge mosaic on the landscape.”
There are 90 miles of boundary line (property line) that needs be reestablished and 50 miles of linear wildlife openings used as fire lines that will have to be disked and seeded, he said.
According to the N.C. State Climate Office in Raleigh, 2016 was the third driest on record in the Asheville area, with 33.35 inches of precipitation. The average is 45 inches.
The fall season from Sept. 1-Nov. 30 was the driest on record in the state, said Rebecca Ward, extension climatologist.
Only 2.6 inches of rain fell in this time period, close to 8 inches below normal. Many WNC counties were in moderate to severe drought through the fall. The month of October was also the fourth-warmest on record, with an average daily temperature of 60.7 degrees, 4.3 degrees above normal. Last year was also the hottest on record in Asheville.
The spring fire season doesn’t portend well. WNC is still in a drought, with four counties – Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Macon – in severe drought, 11 in moderate drought, including Buncombe, and 20 that are abnormally dry.
“With the La Niña advisory we will see drier and warmer conditions. Looking into March and April there is a high probability of low precipitation and above normal temperatures,” Ward said.
Ecologically, an unmanaged wildfire is never good, Wilkins said, but there are places in the forest that will be enhanced by fire..
But the social aspect had a negative effect. More than 140 homes were evacuated and many were seriously threatened.
While most local hotels, cabins and restaurants were full with firefighters during the fires, other businesses felt the heat.
Flames came within 5 feet of a building at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, a whitewater and outdoors outfitter, and the largest employer in Swain County.
Thanks to firefighters, the buildings on the riverside campus were protected, said NOC president William Irving. The business offers water sports from spring through fall, and ziplining, mountain biking, and wilderness classes in the winter.
“We had a 15 percent drop-off in traffic this winter,” Irving said. “But our bookings are up for next season.”
The fires also put a damper on the fall leaf season in Swain and Graham counties, where tourism is the No. 1 business.
Bill Van Horn, with the Nantahala Hiking Club, said the group maintains about 60 miles of the Appalachian Trail from the North Carolina-Georgia border to the NOC. Some 28 miles were impacted by fire. Some spots burned hot enough to create dangerous conditions.
“The NHC is busily repairing these spots by filling in holes where tree stumps were completely burned to ash, where side hill cribbing was burned up and where water control structures were destroyed,” he said.
The Forest Service is planning a salvage sale on about 200 acres in four spots on timber that will die or its value will be severely reduced because of fire scars, Wilkins said.
“The backcountry area will look radically different. A whole section of Appalachian Trail was burned, where there are black trees, fire damaged trees, that we have to go in and snag,” he said. “There are 90 miles of boundary line that need to be naturalized and 50 miles of linear wildlife openings used as fire lines that will have to be disked and seeded. The fire at Wayah Bald was so hot it cooked everything. You’re looking at a black forest.”
The flames here ran uphill and burned into the forest canopy. The roof and floor of the popular Wayah Bald Fire Tower, an historic structure built in the 1930s, was burned, as well as many interpretive signs.
The staircase access at Whitewater Falls in Jackson County, which receives some 55,000 visitors a year, was severely damaged and might cost up to $220,000 to restore, Wilkins said.
Past fires tell a tale
Lisa Jennings, natural resource officer with the U.S. Forest Service, looks to the Linville Gorge fires of 2007 and 2008, which together burned about 10,000 acres, for some perspective.
The unique spot gets the most lightning strikes in all of North Carolina. This has given Linville Gorge a rich history of fire and plant communities that are more fire adapted, such as Table mountain pine, which needs fire to release seed pods. Another fire dependent species, Golden Mountain Heather, which is found in only two places in the world, including on the Grandfather Ranger District, will also benefit.
In the past decade, many of the burned areas are starting to grow back, Jennings said, but so are colonies of invasive plants, which take hold so quickly they don’t allow native plants to grow.
Overall fire does what it’s supposed to – re-growing and following the natural forest succession, Jennings said. “Fire resets the fire back to an earlier stage. Fires always move in a mosaic pattern, burn hot in some areas and, in other areas, clears out underbrush. You get a lot of plant communities that will grow back.”
Kauffman said he is not worried about invasive plants taking over Joyce Kilmer, but is worried about an existing garlic mustard infestation at Tellico Gap, and princess tree, Chinese silvergrass, Oriental bittersweet and privet in other burned areas.
In addition to the invasives, and the immediate impact of visually unappealing woods and soil damage, critters also bear a brunt. Large animals such as deer, bear, turkey and elk can move quickly to rivers and water sources to avoid fire. Smaller, slower moving wildlife such as turtles, snails and salamanders did not fare as well.
Life might spring back to the forest before the wildfire season gets going, but it's too soon to tell, Kauffman said.
In total, they are willing to pay US$643.5 million (RM2.8 billion) a year — large enough to make a “substantive impact on the problem” if used for land conservation and restoration, the researchers state in a paper published in February’s issue of the journal, Environmental Research Letters.
The paper’s authors, Yuan Lin, Lahiru Wijedasa and Dr Ryan Chisholm, wrote: “Our results indicate that Singaporeans experience sufficiently negative impacts of air pollution (in) their day-to-day life, or personal health during haze periods, that they are willing to trade off personal financial gain for improvements in air quality.”
Transboundary haze is a long-standing problem in the South-east Asian region, largely caused by the drainage of carbon-rich peatland as well as companies and farmers in Indonesia using fire to clear land.
Singapore experienced its worst haze episode in 2015 from September to November, with the Pollutant Standards Index hitting hazardous levels.
Since then, Indonesia has renewed efforts to prevent fires, although a state of emergency was declared last month in Riau province over forest and land fires.
The economic impact of haze pollution here has been estimated using cost-benefit analysis before, but the researchers said that the figures could be an under-estimate because they exclude impacts — such as non-hospitalisable health effects — that are difficult to infer from economic data.
The 2015 haze episode was estimated to have cost Singapore S$700 million (RM2.19 billion) in losses.
The NUS researchers surveyed 390 people in public areas from November 2015 to February 2016 on their willingness to pay, should the Singapore Government be able to guarantee good air quality year-round.
The participants, from various age and income groups, were given options ranging from 0.05 per cent to 5 per cent of their annual income, after they indicated if they were willing to support such a haze mitigation fund.
The average person’s willingness to pay was an estimated 0.97 per cent of his/her annual income.
However, about three in 10 respondents were unwilling to pay even the minimum option of 0.05 per cent of their annual income.
Wijedasa said that one of the solutions proposed for the haze problem is payments for ecosystem services.
“This could take the form of richer nations aiding better land management and restoration by making regular payments.
“Indonesia has estimated that it needs US$2.1 billion to help restore two million hectares of peatland in (the country). They have currently only received US$50 million from Norway and US$17 million from the United States.
"Could this shortfall be filled by Singapore (and other countries in the region)?”
Tan Yi Han, who is not involved in the study and is co-founder of non-governmental organisation People’s Movement to Stop Haze, said that the findings are helpful and “should motivate the Singapore Government to spend on measures to prevent haze, such as a subsidy on certified sustainable palm oil, as well as aid to support peat restoration and protection efforts in Indonesia”.
His organisation’s survey last year found that more than nine in 10 respondents were willing to pay more for certified sustainable products to help mitigate the haze, Tan said.
Most were willing to pay 5 to 10 per cent more.
Consumers game to chip in to avoid any haze include Steven Lim, who is in his 40s and self-employed. How much he is willing to contribute would depend on the amount needed to make an impact.
“Maybe S$10? Multiplied by many individuals, it would be a lot,” Lim said, preferring that the money goes to the Indonesian government.- See more at: http://www.themalaymailonline.com/money/article/singaporeans-willing-to-fork-out-1pc-of-income-to-ensure-no-more-haze#sthash.CRhWHQHj.dpuf