The U.S. Forest Service is moving forward with controlled burns in Panthertown, one of Jackson County’s premiere recreational destinations.
Nantahala District Ranger Mike Wilkins announced his decision in a memorandum last week, following a request for public comment earlier this spring. Rangers first accepted public comments in 2012 and held a public meeting that same year, with hundreds of opinions pouring in. Many who spoke opposed the burns, and the USFS didn’t move forward with its plan.
What’s changed? The fall 2016 wildfires, according to Wilkins.
In late October of that year, severe drought and windy conditions left much of Western North Carolina at risk. A series of wildfires ignited, burning 28,000 acres across Jackson, Macon and Swain counties.
“From November to early December, while suppressing 28 fires, more than 150 homes were evacuated for one or more days,” Wilkins said. “Reducing fuel loading on a periodic basis improves the agency’s ability to suppress wildfires that might move off the National Forest or onto the National Forest from private lands. Over time, prescribed burning also moves the forest towards a more natural and historic condition, which promotes lower-severity fires that are less resistant to suppression efforts.”
Rangers have outlined a total of 814 acres – 485 around Blackrock Mountain and 329 around Little Green Mountain – for burning. The plan is to conduct one, two or three burns over a 10-12 year period during the dormant season of the year, generally between Oct. 15 and April 15.
The main goals, Wilkins said, are to: reduce undesirable shade-tolerant species; allow for regeneration of desirable species; establish burn units in a mosaic pattern to mimic natural fire behavior; improve wildlife habitat by increasing the availability and quality of nutritious forage for grazing and browsing animals such as deer, turkey and bear; and reduce fuel accumulation to better protect national forest and adjacent ownerships from wildfire.
The Friends of Panthertown, a conservation nonprofit with a mission of “improving the quality and experience of recreational opportunities in Panthertown,” disagrees with the idea of targeting what it says are “two of the most popular areas for hiking in Panthertown Valley.”
In 2012, the group requested officials focus instead on more remote locations that are less unique and not as heavily visited. They suggested alternative spots and offered to create fire breaks for the forest service as part of the nonprofit’s volunteer work plan. Fire breaks also could be used to prevent the proposed burns from approaching highly visited trails, overlooks and rock outcroppings, the group said.
“These treasured and biologically rich recreation areas in Panthertown are cherished by all who visit for the diverse species of native plants that grow here,” Friends of Panthertown representative said in the group’s comments to rangers earlier this year. “Burning on Little Green and Blackrock will result in a great loss.”
In Wilkins’ memo, the district ranger said implementing prescribed burns and continuing them on a periodic basis would “restore fire-adapted species to the landscape” and provide for more open forest lands in areas “where it has departed from historic conditions.”
“Continuing management in Panthertown through wildfire suppression only allows brush and tree density to become so thick in some areas that it is similar to hiking through a tunnel as opposed to a forest,” Wilkins said. “Most of the visual effects of the prescribed burn are very short lived. To the average viewer, as soon as spring green up occurs conditions appear normal.”
Rangers say they will use a combination of Forest Service roads and existing trails, water bodies and topographic features to contain the fires, and exposed soil left behind from control lines will be treated “as needed” to prevent erosion.
There are techniques to manage fire intensity and keep flame length and rate of spread low, Wilkins said. This reduces impacts to overstay tree species, he said.
All burns will be scheduled when relative humidifies are between 25-55 percent, air temperatures are less than 80 degrees Fahrenheit and underlying duff is damp, according to the forest service’s proposal. Under these conditions, Wilkins said, north-facing slopes either burn with very low intensity that creates little change, or they do not burn at all.
“By design, where some isolated pockets of dense mountain laurel exist, typically on south-facing slopes and in conjunction with scattered pine, there will be more intense fire which will create small pockets of new forest regeneration,” Wilkins said.
Margit Butcher and Megan Sutton, both of the international environmental nonprofit The Nature Conservancy, told the forest service they are happy to see the proposed burns would require little ground disturbance.
“We recognize that minimizing disturbance means that moist areas along streams and northern aspects become part of the burn unit,” Butcher and Sutton said in a joint statement. “Since these areas are either likely not to carry fire or burn with very low intensity and have little impact, we support larger burn units with existing or natural barriers.”
Prescribed fire, according to Wilkins, doesn’t typically burn through the area’s signature granitic dome outcrops, and rangers don’t attempt to ignite those areas.
“Encouraging or targeting burning within the granite dome plant communities is not a goal for these prescribed burns, although fire may back or flank into these areas,” he said. “Fire would most likely not impact the entire plant community due to abundant exposed rock and wet-seep areas located in rock outcrops, which prevent ignition and limit the spread of fire.
“This would leave behind a mosaic pattern of burnt and unburnt vegetation,” Wilkins said.
The forest service’s plan will exclude all “federally listed threatened or endangered species or designated critical habitat, species proposed for Federal listing or proposed critical habitat, or regionally sensitive species.”
That doesn’t mean there won’t be losses, according to Dan Pittillo, a biologist and one of the founders of Friends of Panthertown.
Dozens of cherished plant species on both Blackrock and Little Green mountains will be lost or set back, he said, including, on Little Green trail, wildflowers such as the “colorful and tall” corydalis (Capnoides sempervirens), upland dwarf iris (Iris verna), and blue fall asters.
“In other words the natural gardens will be damaged to a disappointed hiker condition,” Pittillo said. “So fires here is not proper management of this natural diverse rock outcrop crowned mountain.”
According to Friends of Panthertown and other sources:
Panthertown Valley was logged in the 1920s and 1930s by the Moltz Lumber Company. It was then sold in the 1960s to Liberty Properties, who had plans to convert the valley into a resort.
The Blue Ridge Parkway had plans for a route through the valley, but those plans fell through. Duke Power Company purchased the land and built a large electrical transmission line spanning the valley’s width.
In 1988, the Nature Conservancy purchased all but Duke’s right-of-way for $7,875,000 and immediately sold it to the Forest Service for $8 million as an addition to Nantahala National Forest.
The valley contains the headwaters of the east fork of the Tuckaseigee River and is designated as a Blue Ridge National Heritage Area natural heritage site, and as one of North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures by The Wilderness Society.
Thirty miles of backcountry trails in Panthertown Valley are open to hikers and many to mountain bikers and equestrians.
The U.S. Forest Service estimates more than 25,000 visitors from around the world explore Panthertown Valley each year.
Elevation in the valley ranges from 3,000 to 4,777 feet.
Information about prescribed fires from the USFS:
A prescribed fire is a planned fire. It is also sometimes called a “controlled burn” or “prescribed burn.”
A prescription for a fire is a set of conditions that considers the safety of the public and fire staff, weather and probability of meeting the burn objectives.
A scientific prescription for each fire, prepared in advance, describes its objectives, fuels, size, the precise environmental conditions under which it will burn and conditions under which it may be suppressed.
According to the Forest Service, the right fire at the right place at the right time:
• Reduces hazardous fuels, protecting human communities from extreme fires.
• Minimizes the spread of pest insects and disease.
• Removes unwanted species that threaten species native to an ecosystem.
• Provides forage for game.
• Improves habitat for threatened and endangered species.
• Recycles nutrients back to the soil.
• Promotes the growth of trees, wildflowers and other plants.
For and against:
“I write in strong support of prescribed burns in Panthertown Valley. Encouraging control burns will help protect our community from the one thing from which we can’t ever really recover – a massive forest fire. With increased human development, increasing campfires in campsites in Panthertown, increasing fuel from fire suppression and increasing climate change, few things are as important.”
–Robert Balentine, founder of Southern Highlands Reserve
“We all want what is best for Panthertown and its habitat, a special place for so many. I fell in love with this place at first sight and immediately got involved with its conservation as a volunteer, member and prior board member. Our children need a place like Panthertown to come to as well as their children in years to come. Perhaps there is another area better suited for these control burns. An area where special plant life and habitat is not affected and considered a non-recreational area would be the better choice.”
–Wynette Wiles, volunteer with Friends of Panthertown