Photos show evidence of logging at the Bush Creek Marshes Registered Heritage Area near the intersection of Big Woods and Jack Bennett roads in Chatham County.
Chatham resident George Pauly first noticed logging at Bush Creek in 2016. Pauly contacted the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources shortly after he spotted a bulldozer clearing the area.
Established in 2014, Bush Creek Marshes RHA is one of many natural heritage areas around Jordan Lake. RHA’s are voluntary agreements between landowners and the Natural Heritage Program that protect outstanding examples of natural diversity occurring in the state.
Click here to see the full amendment to the memorandum of understanding between the state and the United States Army Corps of Engineers.
The Bush Creek area, which spans of 166 acres of forest, open water and marsh, is home to a variety of wildlife — most notably the bald eagle. The federally protected species is known to be present along the forested margin of the protected area.
The agreement clearly states that the natural forest communities should be allowed to mature into old-growth.
So why were these trees cut down?
In an email exchange with Pauly in September of 2016, North Carolina Natural Heritage Program director Misty Buchanan said the “6.8 acre timber harvest as planned is an approved use of the Registered Heritage Area.” Pauly gave Our Chatham access to the emails.
In July of 2017, Pauly contacted Brooke Massa, land conservation biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. While the forested area is within the stated boundary of the RHA, Massa said, it is not of ecological significance.
“The actual impetus for the NHNA does not always extend to the boundary,” Massa said in the exchange. “In the Bush Creek case, the marsh is the place of ecological significance, not the upland managed loblolly pine stand that extended from the marsh to the boundary.”
According to Massa, the logging is permissible because the management guidelines found in the agreement are not binding. The agreement should not have provided for the maturation of natural forest communities on the uplands of the marsh in the first place, Massa said, because those communities do not exist.
“The registry agreement provides some management guidelines for the management of NHNAs, but it is not a management plan,” Massa said in the email to Pauly. “In the Bush Creek case, the guideline clearly states the NHNA should be managed to allow natural upland forest communities to achieve old growth status. However, the uplands for the marsh have been managed pine stands for as long as the marsh has been designated as an NHNA. There are no ‘natural forest communities’ in existence on the uplands of the marsh. The registry agreement should not have had this as a guideline.”
Pauly claims that many other species were taken directly and indirectly, including sweetgum, maple, other hardwoods and understory vegetation.
“Logging was not a use in the conservation plan agreed to in 2014,” Pauly told Our Chatham. “It is inexplicable that Misty Buchanan continues to insist on this counterfactual assertion. Just the opposite: the upland woods, marsh, and riparian areas were clearly all meant to be preserved.”
Our Chatham contacted Buchanan and Massa to inquire about the logging at Bush Creek RHA.
According to Massa, the logging was a habitat management strategy intended to enhance the biodiversity value of the land managed at Jordan Lake.
“The goal of the timber management (thinning and clear-cut) at this particular place is to support a greater diversity of plant and animal species through patch dynamics and uneven age stand management,” Massa told Our Chatham in an email.
Buchanan, who reiterated that the timber harvest was an approved use of the RHA, said the project did not endanger any protected wildlife, namely the bald eagle nest and beaver marsh.
“The proposed project was expected to remove mature loblolly pine trees from the harvest area,” Buchanan said in an email. “When the project was reviewed by Natural Heritage Program staff in 2014 and 2016, we determined that element occurrences for the Natural Heritage resources were located outside of the pine stands.”
For Pauly, the Bush Creek logging incident is about more than just protecting the environment — it is, ultimately, a matter of government accountability and transparency.
“If she is saying that DEQ approved the logging, then she is admitting the agency’s culpability in this without recognizing that the Natural Heritage program and N.C. Wildlife Resources, as arms of government, are responsible for the preservation of the RNHA, and selling the timber was an utter abrogation of this responsibility,” Pauly said. “She seems to be saying, ‘Yeah, we did that, so what?’”