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Tar Heels in the Forest
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Modern forestry has deep roots in North Carolina, home to one of America’s strongest forest industries and site of FLA’s 2017 national conference.

By Pete Williams

When the Forest Landowners Association welcomes members to the Omni Grove Park Inn for the annual National Forest Landowners Conference in Asheville, North Carolina, on May 30, it will return to arguably the birthplace of American forestry.        

The Tar Heel state’s nickname originates from the earliest days of the colony, when the area’s vast pine forests were an important source of tar, pitch, and turpentine to the British Navy.

Organized forestry began around the start of the 20th century out of a need to restore and protect the Appalachian Mountains, which had been damaged by more than a century of abusive lumbering and fire. At the time, nearly all of North Carolina was clearcut to make way for farms.

Gifford Pinchot, who oversaw the creation of the U.S. Forest Service, began his career in 1892 serving as manager of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. His successor in that role, Carl Alvin Schenck, created The Biltmore Forestry School, the nation’s first forestry education program. And the FLA conference takes place 101 years after the first Southern Forestry Conference held its first gathering, also in Asheville.           

The scenic western Carolina town, with its craft beer pubs, hipster restaurants, and booming development, is representative of the state’s modern dilemma of balancing its $80 billion agricultural industry – including $20 billion from forestry – with a flood of retirees and young people from other states.

“When you have a shift in population with people from other states who don’t understand the forest products market, you have to spend more time educating than in years past,” says Pryor Gibson, Executive Director of the North Carolina Forestry Association. “Because of the interface between residential and forestry needs, you end up with more of a regulatory environment. Our challenge is to show the continued value of wood, land ownership and forestry.”           

Nobody embodied that tradition more than the Vanderbilt family, which built the gigantic Biltmore Estate, which launched the career of Pinchot. As chronicled by the book Forestry in the U.S. South (reviewed on page 35), nobody had more influence on the development of forestry in the United States. Born into wealth and a Yale University graduate, Pinchot studied forestry in France and did research in forests in Switzerland and Germany.

Pinchot began his U.S. forestry career serving as manager for G.W. Vanderbilt II’s Biltmore Estate, which he parlayed in 1898 into a role as a forester and later head of the Division of Forestry in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In that position, he oversaw the creation of the USDA-Forest Service, the National Forest System, and the Society of American Foresters.

Schenck, a twenty-seven-year-old German with a PhD in forestry, replaced Pinchot as manager of the Biltmore Estate in 1895 and organized a school in “practical forestry.” Schenck lectured students on the principles of forestry, but provided a practical education through visits to logging operations, logging camps and sawmills. The “Biltmore School” did not offer formal college classes, but the experience was invaluable to more than 300 students who would become America’s first generation of foresters.

The forestry elitists of the time did not support Schenck, believing a formal education in chemistry, physics, geology, and math was more important than his practical, in-the-woods training. Pinchot, while head of the Division of Forestry, established the nation’s first formal forestry program at his alma mater, Yale. Schenck continued he Biltmore Forest School until 1909 when he was fired by Vanderbilt following a disagreement over a hunting lease on the property.

North Carolina schools were among the first to establish research and demonstration forests during the late 1920s and early 1930s, which helped educate farmers and landowners on the benefits to be gained from practicing forestry.

In 1929, North Carolina State College (now University) established the North Carolina Forestry Foundation and began acquiring forestland for the teaching and demonstration of forestry. Two years later, Duke established a similar project on 4,600 acres of abandoned Piedmont farmland near the university campus and that forest, now 7,060 acres, remains a popular site for research and recreation.

North Carolina, in some respects, is Florida with cooler weather. Like the Sunshine State, its two biggest industries are agriculture and tourism. Both states attract legions of retirees. But Carolina, unlike Florida, attracts young people drawn to its many top-notch universities and young companies.

North Carolina has more than 500,000 non-industrial, private forest landowners, who own 64 percent of the state’s 18.6 million acres of forestland, which accounts for 60 percent of North Carolina’s 31 million acres.

According to the most recent data released by North Carolina State University Extension Forestry, released in May and tracking the industry up to 2013, the forest products sector continues to be the state’s top manufacturing industry.

In terms of direct impact, there are more than 1,000 companies directly contributing to North Carolina’s forest economy, employing more than 70,000 people. Industrial output from the forestry sector contributes $18.5 billion in gross sales. This sector paid a total of $912 million in local, state and federal taxes.

 

Considering the multiplier effect commonly used in economic studies, the forest products industry employs 145,000 people and contributed $29.4 billion to the state’s economy. The industry continues it tradition back to colonial times as a top exporter of various forest products. The export totals include to other states and other countries. Exports were valued at $13.7 billion, including $12.2 billion to other states and $1.47 billion to other countries. North Carolina’s paper manufacturing sector is the largest contributor to forest-based exports. North Carolina has led the South in the port value of logs and wood products exports since 2004.

 

Diverse hardwood forests across the state dominate North Carolina’s landscape, accounting for two-thirds of all timberland. Softwood forest types, found mostly in the piedmont and coastal plain, cover the remaining third. North Carolina’s timberlands grow more than 14.7 billion trees, including at least 70 species of hardwoods and more than 15 species of softwoods. Loblolly pine is the most abundant species across diameter classes, followed by soft hardwoods (red maple, sweet gum, and yellow-poplar). Live standing timber inventory is approximately 38.4 billion cubic feet of which 65 percent is hardwoods and 35 percent softwoods.

 

Approximately 3.2 million acres (18 percent) is pine plantation, located in the coastal plain and piedmont, and loblolly pine accounts for nearly 80 percent of all plantation acreage.

 

North Carolina also has benefited from the European demand for wood pellets. Enviva has three plants in the state and recently opened a deep-water marine terminal in Wilmington.

 

It’s fair to say that bioenergy has added markets that we haven’t had in the past and given landowners more markets for their timber,” Gibson said. “It’s not a panacea for everything we might have with issues in our industry, but it’s a welcome addition.”

Forests also provide an abundance of recreational opportunities in North Carolina. More than 7 million people annually visit these forests to camp, hunt, fish, and enjoy scenic drives. The state features four national forests – Nantahala, Pisgah, Uwharrie, and Croatan – and numerous state forests, including Holmes Educational Forest in Hendersonville. A managed forest, it was designed to promote a better understanding of the value of forests through exhibits and ranger-conducted classes.

Asheville is one of North Carolina’s fastest-growing cities and appears regularly in listings of America’s best places to live for its scenic beauty, affordability, and recreational opportunities. Located at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains, the highest portion of the Appalachian Range, the town is the eastern equivalent of the mountain resort towns that dot the American west in the Rocky Mountains.

The Biltmore Estate, America’s largest privately-owned home at 178,826 square feet, continues to attract more than 1 million visitors a year to the 8,000-acre Asheville property. Many more visitors enjoy the 86,700 acres of the original estate’s forested land that Edith Vanderbilt sold in 1914 to the federal government, creating the Pisgah National Forest

The remaining forest at the Biltmore estate continues to be managed with the guiding principles established by Pinchot and Schenck. In 1968, 6,500 acres of Pisgah were designated as the “Cradle of Forestry,” which remains a popular attraction for those who wish to learn more about the early pioneers of American forestry. Two trails at the Forest Discovery Center lead visitors back in time to seven historical buildings, a 1915 Climax logging locomotive and an antique portable sawmill.

 

All of which figures to be of particular interest this spring to those attending the FLA conference, where they can focus on modern industry issues while surrounded by U.S. forest history.

Pete Williams is editor of Forest Landowner magazine.

*This article initially ran in the January/February issue of Forest Landowner Magazine.

 

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