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Timber Harvests - Are We Still Muddying the Water?


By Philip Weatherford, Real Estate Agent and Registered Forester, American Forest Management - Piedmont, SC

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will soon begin a status review for the endangered Carolina heelsplitter. This caught my attention because this freshwater mussel is found in South Carolina’s Piedmont region as well as in North Carolina Piedmont where I work and live.

The Carolina heelsplitter was placed on the endangered species list in 1993. Among many factors that led to population declines, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) cited water quality problems in streams caused by timber harvesting. At the time, it was rightly brought to the Agency’s attention that forestry best management practices (BMPs) were effective for reducing erosion and keeping sediment from timber harvests out of streams. However, in 1993 BMPs were still gaining traction and the FWS cited recent examples where BMPs had not been implemented and streams were a mess. In summary, the Agency said that BMPs are good, but not everyone is doing them, so forest management is an ongoing threat.

Now in 2018, we are 25 years since the Carolina heelsplitter was determined to be endangered. Back to the original question; are we still muddying the water? In a word – no.

Forestry water quality BMPs have been a huge success. Over the last 25 years the evidence has been stacking up and clearly says: BMPs are being put into practice and BMPs are effective.

South Carolina (home to heelsplitter) is one example among many states, where voluntary cooperation between landowners, foresters, loggers, and mills has led to very high implementation rates for BMPs on timber harvest sites. The SC Forestry Commission is charged with developing BMP guidelines that forest managers put into practice throughout the state, and then monitoring compliance to see how crews in the woods are doing. The state’s latest BMP report was published in 2017 and is available at the Forestry Commission’s website. It describes a period of increasing BMP awareness and implementation, leading to greater protection of water quality.

The SC Forestry Commission has carried out many rounds of forestry BMP compliance surveys over the last 25 years. These statewide surveys are thorough and systematic. The Commission has four foresters on staff who are specially trained to carry out site inspections. In the latest survey, 199 sites were selected throughout the state, distributed based on annual timber harvest from each county. Sites totaled more than 12,500 acres of harvesting activity, and 4,000 individual practices were evaluated. Implementation of BMPs was found to have happened 95.5% of the time. Even better, on 97% of monitored sites, BMPs were found to be protecting water quality.

South Carolina is not alone. Rates of BMP compliance are high across the nation. Recent averages reported among southeastern states, and for the U.S., have been more than 90%. Although there is room for improvement, anytime something positive is happening more than 9 times out of 10, that’s a pretty good result. More information about BMP implementation is available at websites maintained by the National Association of State Foresters and Southern Group of State Foresters.

Some people are surprised to learn that all of this has been happening in South Carolina, and other southern states, on a voluntary basis. It has been a collaborative effort by people all along the wood supply chain. Private landowners have heard about BMPs and are increasingly likely to use written timber sale contracts which include requirements for BMP compliance. Foresters make plans for timber harvests with BMPs in mind, marking boundaries and road locations as needed. Loggers take time out of their demanding schedules to complete education for proper application of BMPs. Many forest products companies have supported the research to find out what works to protect water quality, and many of their mills require the wood they buy to come from sites where BMPs are put into practice.

If we as forest owners and forest managers are not doing basic things like protecting water quality and conserving wildlife habitat, we should recognize that and change to make things right. The development and implementation of water quality BMPs is a tremendous success story showing how we have done just that. So, we can be proud of the many good changes for water quality that have happened in our woods in the last 25 years. But, there may be folks who don’t yet know about this success.

Take the FWS for example. Have they heard the BMP success story that has happened in the 25 years since the Carolina heelsplitter was listed as endangered? Will they consider the progress forestry has made in their status review? I don’t know, but this seems like a perfect example of someone we should be sure to tell. If they have not heard, they may think the water is still muddy.

Wouldn’t it be great if the people who make policy decisions, or even the people who just vote in our elections, did so with all the facts in front of them? But if we don’t take it upon ourselves to make the facts known, they simply may not know.

It’s a wonderful thing when telling the truth is all that is needed for a good story, and the water quality BMP story is well worth telling. I want to thank landowner associations, industry groups, and state agencies that are working to make good things about forestry known. They deserve our support.

Let me encourage all of us to consider who might benefit from some good news about how we are taking care of forests.

If we tell our story, maybe that will help clear the water as much as the BMPs themselves.