08.08.07 10:17 Age: 11 yrs
Into the Forest
Allison Perrett discovers a model for land conservation in our own backyard
Robin Suggs, standing behind wild yam
Reprinted with permission from New Life Journal Magazine, August 2007 www.newlifejournal.com
In the far reaches of Western North Carolina, in a relatively remote and wild valley carved out by a tributary of the Little Tennessee River, Robin Suggs grows native medicinal plants. His business, MoonBranch Botanicals, supplies raw botanical ingredients valued for their medicinal qualities to medicine makers and herbal practitioners.
This is not your typical operation. At MoonBranch Botanicals, you won't find greenhouse nursery production. On 32 acres of forested land, Robin cultivates plants in their naturally occurring environments. Home to more than 3,000 native plant species, this area of the southern Blue Ridge Mountains is botanically rich, and Robin's business depends on maintaining the integrity of this biodiverse natural system.
Ten years ago, when Robin began working on this land, he used conventional means of production. Several years ago, he began to explore alternative methods. "I began to see that the way I was approaching my production was an uphill battle. I was working against nature," Robin says. "Rather than modifying the natural system to fit the crops, I started to modify my production practices to fit the natural system. It makes perfect sense. Natural systems are the result of hundreds of thousands of years of trial and error. The native plants I work with are perfectly adapted to the conditions of this region." On a recent visit, Robin led me along one of the trails that traverse his land. I followed Robin as he crossed over a meandering stream that veered off the path into a veritable sea of green. To my inexperienced eye, each plant looked the same. Not so for Robin, who has been working with plants for over 25 years. He pointed out bloodroot, American ginseng, mayapple and witch hazel—just some of the plants he cultivates. He then stopped and kneeled down in front of the plant he was looking for: black cohosh; its root is sought by herbalists to treat symptoms associated with menopause.
Robin cleared organic debris from around the base of the plant, then pulled out a clawed tool to break up the earth so that he could use his hands to gently free the root. Before placing it in his satchel, Robin broke off a piece of the root and replanted it. He told me that replanting is an essential and basic step in his harvesting practice. "My production relies on stewardship of a naturally occurring system. Taking steps to maintain its integrity ensures the forest system's ecological health and also the viability of my business." The root Robin dug during my visit will supply an order from one of Asheville's local grocers, like Greenlife or the French Broad Food Co-op, or for a local herbal practitioner, while the replanting will generate new growth.
Working Forests: A Renewable Resource
Driving along the main road of his community, Robin and I counted the number of real estate signs advertising home sites for sale. "Things are really changing. When I moved out here a decade ago, it felt like I was living in a remote place. It doesn't feel like that anymore. More roads. More second homes. If we keep heading this way, we're going to lose it," he says. We followed one of the signs up a freshly cut road to a cleared home site. Robin commented on the view. "Who wouldn't want to live here? Look at it. People come here because they want to live in a beautiful place, to get away from crowded cities. The irony is that the sale and subdivision of the land is destroying the very thing that attracts people to this region."
At a time when our forested areas are shrinking, Robin's model of production offers a means to protect them from further development. North Carolina currently leads the nation in loss of forested lands. A recent report published by the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources reports that pressures related to the expansion of urban areas have contributed to the loss of more than 1,000,000 forested acres since 1990.
"A line of thinking that dominates discussions on land use is that wildlands are valuable for their development value," Robin notes. "If you want to base their worth purely on the bottom line, then their value lies in their natural state. Working forests managed properly can be renewable and profitable sources of medicine, food and fiber." As the name suggests, working forests are not nature preserves. Forested areas are utilized for their resources—timber and nontimber—in a way that maintains ecological integrity and that can potentially enhance biological diversity. "One of the best ways to preserve wildlands is to make them economically productive, to manage them as working forests," Robin believes.
Studies conducted by the American Farmland Trust support Robin's statement. These studies, which compared the costs of providing infrastructure and services to residential property versus farm, forest, and open lands in 83 communities across the country, demonstrate that residential land uses are a net drain on municipal funds. It costs local governments more to provide services to homeowners than what residential landowners pay in property taxes. By contrast, working farms and forested lands generate more in local tax revenues than they require in services (Cost of Community Services Studies: Making the Case for Conservation, 2002).
As I collected my notebook and camera to make my journey back to Asheville, Robin gathered up his equipment to go back out into the forest. "In our society," he told me, "we have become so disconnected from the land, people forget that they are just part of one living world."
His statement captures the reciprocal relationship that binds owner and forest on working lands. Forest products provide landowners with a source of income; forested land owners steward and build a natural resource.
For more information about MoonBranch Botanicals, visit http://www.moonbranch.com.
Allison Perrett is a PhD candidate in applied anthropology, works for Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, and teaches at Warren Wilson College. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org