HILLSBOROUGH—OWASA’s draft plan to manage 1,900 acres of forest through controlled burning, selective thinning and herbicides elicited a volatile and combative response from neighbors Tuesday night.

More than 100 residents, mostly Cane Creek Reservoir watershed dwellers, attended the meeting at the Maple View Agriculture Center and questioned OWASA’s intent and integrity, the impact on wildlife, effects to their pastoral setting and to drinking quality, noting the potential for gasoline and hydraulic fluid spills and erosion at the 17 properties that were included in the plan.

OWASA Sustainability Manager Patrick Harris said that the utility is seeking to cull trees and to craft its first comprehensive tree management strategy for “science-based reasons,” not because they are interested in logging revenues.

They hired True North Forest Management Services, a Holly Springs-housed company, to complete an analysis of existing trees and to craft a management strategy. The N.C. Division of Forest Resources and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission also reviewed the plan and defended it at the meeting.

“Trust me, there is sustainable, good forestry that can coexist with your neighbors,” said District 11 Forester John Howard, who lives near Cane Creek. “I’ve seen no effort to hoodwink anybody.”

David Halley, a registered forester with True North, attempted to sell residents on the plan by highlighting that 25 percent of the trees would be designated as part of riparian buffers and would not be harvested. He listed maintaining water quality, enhancing forest conditions for wildlife and improving tree standards as top priorities.

He also stressed that True North recommends harvesting trees at 45 years old, 10 years later than the industry standard, he said, so that the trees can reach their full beauty.

That did little to appease residents who pleaded with OWASA to reevaluate the plan. They complained that they didn’t have adequate time to review the cumbersome plan, released last month, that they weren’t notified of the meeting by OWASA and that the proposed riparian buffers were not large enough. They called for the creation of a citizen advisory board to help wade through the process.

“The first rule of neighborhoods is don’t B.S. your neighbor,” said Jim Warren, who has lived in Orange County for three decades. “This plan would convert Orange County forests into tree farms.”

Opponents also questioned the science behind the plan, wondered how it improves water quality and asked “who determines what is ‘sound?”

“You guys know how to do it better than Mother Nature?” resident Lynne Jaffe said. “Tell me that a bunch of, forgive me, men can determine that they know how to do a forest better than a forest itself.”

Several who spoke pointed to advanced ecology and forestry degrees. Others were experts in environmental law or public policy. Activists have launched a web site seeking to curtail the plan.

“It’s quite impressive what OWASA has been able to accomplish, getting so many people involved in the democratic process,” Carrboro Alderman Sammy Slade said.

“I hope OWASA is cognizant of the number of people who will bang on their doors if they don’t listen. I’m quite confident OWASA will do the right thing.”

OWASA Board Chairman Gordon Merklein, who at one point signaled “time out,” agreed to extend the comment period, which was set to close on Friday, to consider appointing an advisory committee and to seek review from other state agencies, such as the N.C. Department of Natural Resources Division of Water Quality.

OWASA Board of Directors next meets on Dec. 9.