A beautiful forest once towered over Lake Michie Dam Road, north of Durham. But one day in June the forest looked like Godzilla had a stomping party. Twelve acres of trees were gone, their stumps poking out of the ground, limbs strewn into piles. Bare, pulverized earth glared white in the sun.
The site looked like other clear-cuts in the Piedmont, but this was a conservation forest with 85-year-old trees owned by the Triangle Land Conservancy. The nonprofit land trust has begun logging sections of its nature preserves in Orange, Chatham and Durham counties and may remove trees from hundreds of acres of woodlands by the time the forest workers are done.
Most donors and the public know little or nothing about the timbering activities of the group that over the years has featured colorful images of dense forests, sparkling streams and habitat-sensitive frogs in brochures and on its website.
A private organization with an annual operating budget of $950,000, the TLC has refused to release its forest management plans for timbering to the public. Yet the group accepts public and private funds to fulfill its mission of acquiring and protecting forests, stream buffers, wildlife habitats and farmland.
Now the TLC wants more taxpayer dollars: It has asked water customers in Raleigh, Durham, Cary and Orange County to pay a surcharge on their monthly bills so it can acquire more land, which TLC officials say will guard the area's water quality.
Disagreements abound over whether logging trees is appropriate for conservation. Some sources say at the heart of all timbering is a financial motive, which the conservancy denies. Its revenues have been hurt, however, in the economic downturn, and money from the trees could help steady the nonprofit's tenuous finances.
"It's for wildlife habitat and for forest health," said TLC's Jeff Masten, the conservation strategies director who ordered the Lake Michie Dam Road cut. "It's not about money."
But the TLC's own forester said money was why he cut down the woodland. "As beautiful as it is ... we recommend a final harvest," forester David Halley wrote to the land trust responsible for protecting the forest, a stand of very large short-leaf and loblolly pines, with hardwood trees mixed in.
Halley, who operates True North Forest Management Services, said the trees had reached their economic peak and would fetch $2,000 to $3,000 per acre. "We felt that the timber value was maximized," he said in a recent phone interview. "We decided, let's harvest part of this and turn that revenue around," he said, explaining that the money could be used to pay conservation-related expenses.
TLC officials refused to discuss current or projected revenues from the tree cuts occurring at three of its nature preserves: the 708-acre Horton Grove Preserve in Durham County, the 422-acre White Pines Nature Preserve in Chatham County and the 269-acre Irvin Nature Preserve south of Chapel Hill. TLC officials are also considering tree-cutting plans for the 613-acre tract north of Chapel Hill known as Brumley Forest, Masten said. (See "Logging on TLC lands" map.)
All this is troubling news to Valerie Yow of Chapel Hill who contributed to the TLC precisely to stop the cutting of local forests. "I think they should make their plans known," she said. "There should be transparency."
"Every time I see our woods cut down and a shopping mall built, I have a sinking feeling," the writer-historian said. "I grew up in Greensboro. There was a huge forest out our back door. We felt completely safe there. It was wonderful. I think contact with nature is absolutely important and necessary to being human."
How TLC's focus has changed
In 2004, Kevin Brice took over the reins of the group that many people considered the pinnacle of local environmentalism. That reputation was built on 20 years of preservation successes. From its inception in 1983 to 2004, the group had opened four nature preserves for hiking and bird-watching, saved local forests from development and kept intact stretches of working farmland.
Then Brice, the TLC's president and CEO, initiated a change to the group's 2004–2005 IRS tax form that added "silvicultural uses" to the nonprofit organization's tax-exempt purpose statement. Silviculture is the practice of growing trees, cutting them down and usually selling the logs.
In a recent phone interview, Brice said the Form 990 was a way to communicate with the public. That arcane tax form was the only place the public could have learned of this policy change, which was not announced in newsletters, press releases or on the website. Neither was the change voted on by the TLC's board of directors, which provides governing policy and oversight for the organization.
"Done strategically, there are opportunities and needs for targeted clear-cuts," Brice said in a recent interview, explaining that silviculture could be considered a type of conservation.
Brice has a bachelor's degree in psychology and managed mergers and acquisitions for an investment firm in Chicago. In 1993 he visited Tanzania, and some conversations he had there with primatologist Jane Goodall inspired him to pursue conservation work. In 1996 he worked as a volunteer for the TLC and has worked his way up the organizational ladder.
Since 2004, when Brice became its leader, the nonprofit group has acquired extensive tracts of land—and done so with taxpayer funds and the donations of many individuals. Some of these forests span several hundred acres and are among the last remaining large and mature hardwood stands close to the Triangle's urban core.
"So many birds depend on them," zoologist Harry LeGrand of the N.C. Natural Heritage Program said of the forests. In the TLC's forest holdings, pileated woodpeckers cling to trees searching for tasty insects. Great horned owls hatch nestlings in the winter, under the cover of pine branches. And locally rare redback salamanders skitter among fallen leaves.
These forests can also provide Triangle hikers and children a place to experience nature close to home. Today the land trust owns about 4,000 acres; of that total, 609 acres, about 15 percent, are open for public use, according to TLC website figures. However, the land trust has not opened a new preserve to the public since 1999. TLC officials say they plan to open more forests in the future.
Swaths of these recently acquired forests are protected by conservation easements that forbid timbering. The public paid millions of dollars for these easements, which are legal agreements that restrict the use of a property forever. For example, about $5 million came from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the state's Ecosystem Enhancement Program, state officials said, all money that helped the TLC acquire the Horton Grove and Brumley Forest holdings.
But the easements only apply to particular sections of the forests. For other areas of the woodlands, the conservancy has kept its options open. And since 2008, the group has pursued developing tree-cutting plans for these areas, which are not yet open to the public.
Recently, Brice and Masten allowed this reporter one morning to view the plans, which spanned hundreds of pages. They would not allow copies to be made or to be released to the public. They would not permit this reporter to look again at the plans to check against notes. Brice revealed that the plans existed only after this reporter had stumbled on the group's logging activities and in May began asking questions.
There are three basic plans: one written in 2010 by Halley for Horton Grove, where timbering has begun on about 90 acres of woodlands. There is a plan for White Pines written in 2008 by Halley, with the timbering due to begin this year, Halley said. (But Brice said in June the timbering would be delayed.) And there is a 2010 plan for the Irvin Nature Preserve, where Jerry Gaertner of North State Forestry began timbering on about 70 acres in 2009 before the plan was written.
Both Halley and Gaertner are private logging contractors who work with the TLC to decide which trees to cut and where. They hire the tree-cutting machinery and are paid a percentage of the trees they cut.
In their plans, the foresters divide the forests into parcels (see "A forest management plan"). Some areas are targeted for clear-cutting, where all the trees on a site are downed, and others are bound for selective cutting, where some trees are left standing. Herbicide use, prescribed fires and no action are also recommended for different areas.