The value of the Craig tract goes beyond its timber. Let’s protect it.

Peter White is the former director of the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill.
Peter White is the former director of the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill. Contributed photo

Although I join others in urging Mr. Craig to help us preserve the forest tract he has proposed to cut and disagree with his rationale for harvest, I am grateful that he has presented his plan in a public forum. And, despite my disagreement, I cannot let the opportunity pass to thank Mr. Craig, on behalf of our community, for the access to his land that we have enjoyed for many years.

The Craig Tract is easy to fall in love with, with its rocky hill tops, the narrow ravine with dwarf iris and Atamasco lilies along Craig Creek, the fine, old beech trees along lower slopes, a section of Bolin Creek itself, cooling shade, and scattered large specimens of white oak, red oak and tuliptrees.

Trails abound and we have enjoyed hours of hiking, contemplating, photographing, listening to owls and migrating warblers, biking, and seeing friends and neighbors out in those woods.

In his editorial, Mr. Craig focused on two issues: fire and the risk of the loss of his merchantable trees to beetles, along with the danger of beetles spreading to nearby neighborhood trees. I respectfully submit that these issues deserve further discussion. I also argue that there are other ways to measure the value of forested tract than the merchantable trees themselves, though I recognize Mr. Craig’s economic interest is clear.

About fire risk: felling of trees would put tree tops on the ground, along with the woody debris from collateral damage. Combined with the drying effects of direct sun, the fuel load would initially increase, maintaining fire risk for a number of years after logging.

About beetle risk: the beetles do present a risk to the value of timber, though it is not predictable when this will happen. It is a toss up as to whether pines on this tract increase risk to pines in neighborhoods or vice versa.

Further, the beetle risk, whether to Craig’s trees or the trees in neighborhoods, is a consequence of the pines having dominated stands after agriculture ceased. Given enough time, the natural progression of forest succession is that the pines will dwindle and be replaced with a mixed hardwood forest.

The places that are now in hardwoods, with their occasional large oaks, hickories, tuliptrees, and beech obviously aren’t affected by the beetle risk argument and should be spared. Replanting with a dense plantation of loblolly will eventually result in a stand vulnerable to beetles again, and would lead to lower biodiversity than occurs now. Allowing natural regeneration and leaving the existing hardwood stands alone would move the forest along in terms of succession to a mixed hardwood forest with lower fire risk, no concern for beetles spreading to neighborhoods, and higher diversity of insects and birds.

Nature itself will eventually remove the pines (they fail to reproduce as hardwoods and forest shade increase) but will do so gradually and without the damage to soils and water quality that occurs with logging. Logging, if it occurs, should target only the pines and be designed to limit damage to soils and streams.

But the deeper issue is that timber is not the only value of this tract. The value for carbon storage (these forests are still accumulating carbon and contain vast stores now), the cooling effects of shade and evaporation, biodiversity, recreation, social interaction, environmental education, clean water, and the contemplation of nature — the value to the community — exceed the value of the trees. If only those values were converted to dollars, Craig could be paid for providing these benefits.

Those values are all the higher because tracts like Mr. Craig’s are becoming scarce in our area, even as organizations like the Friends of Bolin Creek, Triangle Land Conservancy, N.C. Botanical Garden, Haw River Assembly, and Eno River Association work to protect land, water quality, and outdoor recreation in our midst.

Mr. Craig describes forest management in Duke Forest, but doesn’t mention that there are also tracts in that forest on which natural processes prevail, with old hardwood forests that have developed and support the values I list here. Wherein lies the value of a forest? Mr. Craig owns the land and he is within his rights to evaluate the with risks and returns of his investment. I argue here that there is value in this tract beyond timber. I argue this not only on behalf of the Craig Tract, but on behalf of larger forest tracts and the natural connections and wildlife corridors, like stream valleys, that forest tracts represent in our fast developing region. These values are significant.

Peter White is a professor in the Biology Department UNC-Chapel Hill and was director of the N.C. Botanical Garden for 28 years.

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