Towering hardwoods and shaded corners have long defined southern Orange County, but in recent years, residents have worried that the forest is disappearing.
The concern has mounted in the last few months, after a six-acre tract on Estes Drive was leveled for the Chapel Hill Retirement Residence project. A second, 15-acre tract at the corner of Estes Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard will be harvested soon.
It's the latest in a succession of tree clearing around town, from the 55-acre Carraway Village project on Eubanks Road, to the iconic but aging or damaged hardwoods removed from Franklin Street, and the undeveloped land cleared for apartments in the town's Blue Hill District and other areas.
The losses have prompted the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town to start a petition asking the Chapel Hill Town Council for rules that protect large trees, especially those that are rare or unusual.
Now, the loggers are coming to a decades-old forest between Bolin Creek and the Carrboro-Chapel Hill line.
Chapel Hill resident P.H. Craig Jr., a longtime Realtor, has owned the roughly 70-acre forest next to UNC's Carolina North Forest since 1965. He received the state's Order of the Long Leaf Pine in 2015 for his conservation efforts.
But the time has come to harvest some of the trees, Craig said, in part because the 80-plus-year-old pines face a greater risk of fire and insects. Forester Clell Britt, with the N.C. Forest Service, said there's no pine beetle infestation yet, but aging trees make it more likely.
"When they become stressed, because of age or drought or something like that, that's when [pine beetles] can get a foothold," Britt said. "By the time you realize you have Southern Pine Beetles, you're going to have to do some clear-cutting just to prevent it from moving."
Craig also needs a harvest to comply with the state's present-use value program, which gives him a property tax break. The program requires that he file and follow a forestry management plan, which he has never done.
"I could not have afforded to keep that property if I'd not had it [in the program]," Craig said, "and, of course, if I don't follow the plan, they can revoke it. I have been subject to that for some time."
Forestry consultant Bill Dryman recently examined the trees and concluded about 34 acres could be cut, including "collateral damage" that represents just over 10 percent of the hardwoods. The result could be a more diverse habitat that provides food, nesting places and cover for birds and wildlife, he said.
"It kind of mimics the field returning to a forest naturally — you'll have a lot of grasses, forage legumes that will come back initially," Dryman said. "You'll also have a mix of hardwood that will come back in the stand."
However, neighbors and The Friends of Bolin Creek nonprofit group want Craig to consider another option: Sell his land or grant a conservation easement to the county or a local land protection group. A petition supporting that option has over 300 signatures.
The nonprofit group also is planning to ask Kathryn Butler, who owns the Estes-MLK tract, to reconsider her forestry plans. That work could start this month, forestry consultant Barny Bernard said.
Friends president Julie McClintock said they have approached Craig before "with money in hand" to buy his land, but Craig wasn't interested. He also declined when she and others twice approached him about a conservation easement, she said.
They're trying for a June meeting to talk with Craig about his plans, McClintock said.
Craig said he remembers previous conversations but didn't think they were going anywhere or represented "serious offers." He has since been advised to consider all of his lands before making a decision, he said.
Residents want him to know they also are concerned about the forest's future, Tom Cors said.
"We certainly appreciate that he has the right to timber his property, but we had hoped that he would do it in a less-severe manner, [such as] selectively cut," Cors said.
He suggested Craig also could get tax relief — and continue serving the community — by putting a conservation easement on the land. Craig has been "very gracious" in letting them hike his land for many years, Cors said.
Water quality is another concern, Friends members said. Craig's land runs a half-mile along Bolin Creek, which has long been identified as impaired. A 2004 report identifies the tract as a preservation priority for improving and maintaining water quality.
Since Jordan Lake watershed rules only require tree harvesting to stop 50 feet from the creek, the concern is that clear-cutting trees could allow dirt and other debris to run into the creek.
Dryman said that's unlikely, although the loggers will have to cross the creek in two places to harvest the trees. The work could take four to five weeks, depending on the weather, he said, and most will be happening at least 80 to 100 feet from the creek.
"The stumps, limbs, everything's left there, and that's what holds the soil in place," Dryman said. "As it decays, it adds nutrients back to the soil."
The land will be replanted with loblolly pine, a fast-growing tree that matures in about 25 years and is widely planted in the Southeast for lumber and pulpwood production. N.C. State University reported that genetics research in the last 50 years has amplified the tree's ability to remove atmospheric carbon, which contributes to climate change.