A scar above the New Hope

Dec. 14, 2013 @ 05:40 PM
I was a passenger recently on a short jaunt with a friend down Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard.
As we passed over the new bridge over New Hope Creek, I saw a sight we could be seeing all over Durham.  For a mile along the highway as we climbed up from the New Hope, clear across to the steep slopes that drop down to Dry Creek, an entire urban forest had been clear cut.
I don’t mean clear cut like developers unfortunately often practice or selectively cut while also making the forest more healthy and sustainable.  I mean entirely clear cut to a sea of stumps, I am told to just harvest the timber.
It was all perfectly legal, I am told. 
Denuding that landscape apparently doesn’t violate soil erosion ordinances and a plan for the cutting had apparently been approved both by the N.C. Forest Service and the county agency responsible for forest protection.
The irony is the ravaged area notches into a corridor the City and County of Durham along with Orange County and the Town of Chapel Hill have spent the past quarter century trying to protect in the public interest, including 1,100 acres of floodplain, 45 acres of step slopes and 54 acres of uplands similar to to those deforested a few weeks ago.
Further irony is that the huge rubber-wheeled timber harvesters were laying waste at the very time volunteers were working on the opposite side of the New Hope to spruce up a park converted in its watershed from an old sewer plant.
The deforestation illustrates the dilemma Durham faces.  Its tree ordinances are fragmented.  No agency, not even the city’s urban forestry division, is adequately equipped or inspired to safeguard Durham’s overall tree canopy.
Any ordinances or processes involving trees, soil and other assets obviously fall pitifully short.
The clear-cut trees had public health value far in excess of their value to a pulp or lumber mill, but apparently the owners weren’t aware of the many stewardship alternatives, incentives or practices available.
Or it may not have mattered.
More trees were probably destroyed in a matter of days along that mile than the city and country have reforested here in a decade.
This is not only because Durham has shorted urban forestry but because officials refuse to accept that urban forest management involves both public and private lands.
Across the nation, there are 3.8 billion trees in urban forests such as Durham’s. Collectively, they are worth nearly $3 trillion in structural value alone.  In terms of overall forestland in the United States, 35 percent is owned by families, including individuals, married couples, estates and trusts.
In the South, this percentage zooms from 35 percent to 59 percent, or 128 million acres, more than twice that held by the forest industry.  Much of what many of us love about Durham, much of why it is so coveted by relocating businesses or the talent they pursue could disappear overnight, just as it did along the New Hope last month.
It isn’t like this warning is new.  It was sounded about the New Hope in Durham in a 1986 inventory of natural assets.  By 1988, neighborhood activists added grass-roots energy.  By 1991-92, a multi-government master plan had been adopted.  In 1992, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service included it in it regional wetlands plan.
Most Durham residents, if they are like me, believed that these actions, along with ordinances to prevent soil erosion and slow and cleanse storm run-off, screen and scrub pollutants along roadways and the foresting plan reviews would have at least ensured selective cutting on that mile-long stretch south of the New Hope and west of its tributary Dry Creek.
Either in the letter or the spirit or the execution, something isn’t working.
The land is private land, but even among the most conservative that doesn’t mean it is immune from self-restraint or the consequences of actions that harm others.  New Hope is a primary tributary to Jordan Lake, the drinking water for scores of cities, towns and counties.
The deforested area I saw is part of New Hope Creek’s watershed close to the lake, which drains Duke University campus and southwest Durham.
It marks in part the beginning of the Cape Fear River basin, North Carolina’s largest. Durham in the north is also at the beginning of the Neuse River watershed, the state’s third largest, and the two massive watersheds break along a ridge that runs through downtown Durham.
This is the only major city and county straddling both watersheds, reason enough for the 187 municipalities downstream to invest inTrees Across Durham. 
It is also another reason Durham must deepen its urban forestry ordinances, incorporate both the city and county and take a holistic approach by addressing privately owned as well as publicly owned forest.
In Durham, we often view public-health efforts such as those along our streams and rivers through only the lens of recreation.  But the extraordinarily far-sighted City Council led for two terms by then-mayor Wib Gulley grasped that urban forest was also about economic development.
They banned billboard and other sign blight for the benefit of trees and vegetation, established a best-practice forest and scenic overlay along I-40 through southern Durham and established the Durham Service Corp to teach nature-related skills and provide work for disadvantaged youth.
With the Board of County Commissioners, led by then chair and now long-serving mayor Bill Bill, they solicited and adopted plans to protect streams such as the one for the New Hope and its tributaries.
To leverage these natural and historic assets, including urban forest canopy, into visitor-centric economic and cultural development, they established as a provision to state legislation a free-standing, self-funded agency to champion and promote sense of place.
Obviously, their work is not quite finished or something has been lost.
Today a new generation of Durham officials needs to set about to reinvigorate not only ordinances, but practices and incentivwithin prevent more of the desecration along the New Hope.