Monday, December 02, 2013

A Scar Above The New Hope

I was a passenger last week on a short jaunt with a friend down the boulevard that runs southwest from Durham, where I live toward Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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.New Hope Deforestation

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 NC 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 last 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 those that were deforested a few weeks ago.

Further irony is that the huge rubber wheeled timber harvesters (probably like the one shown in this blog) 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 I’m afraid 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 as noted in this 2010 white paper.

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% is owned by families, including individuals, married couples, estates and trusts.

In the South, this percentage zooms from 35% to 59%, 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 not just one of many creeks and rivers in Durham.  It is a primary tributary to Jordan Lake, the drinking water for scores of cities, towns and counties.

New Hope was a river until the 1970s.  From its headwaters near Kimbro Road below Orange Grove, along where I often take Harley excursions, an approximately 20-mile stretch of the creek was left when its valley namesake just below Durham was flooded to create the more than 14,000-acre Jordan in the 1960s which was known as New Hope Lake until 1973.Post New Hope 

The deforested area I saw is part of the 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, populated by 27% of the state’s residents.

Durham in the north is also located 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 including half of the state’s 100 counties to invest in Trees Across Durham as a means of protecting these sources of water, much as New York City does in the Catskills.

It is also another reason that Durham must deepen its urban forestry ordinances, incorporate both the city and county and take a holistic approach by addressing both 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 that were being sacrificed, established a best practice forest and scenic overlay along I-40 as it passes through southern Durham and established the Durham Service Corp to teach nature-related skills and provide work for disadvantaged youth.

In concert with the Board of County Commissioners, led by then chair and now long-serving mayor Bill Bill, they also solicited and adopted plans to protect streams such as the one for the New Hope and its tributaries.

To leverage these place based 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 from what I saw recently, 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 incentives, so that the desecration in the image above remains more as it was captured below by Google before the deforestation took place.

New Hope Clear Cut


Anonymous said...

You're right, Reyn. People who own forest property should only be wealthy enough to afford the taxes on it year after year and never harvest a stick of it. What a shame it is that people are allowed to manage their own property. the forest is gone forever, I suppose. Obviously it will never grow back.

Reyn said...

Or harvest selectively, leaving immature trees to continue growing while leaving rows of trees as a screen to roadways and to buffer streams from run off - it isn't either/or