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How WNC gained a million acres of national forests, and what their future management may mean

The second in an in-depth reporting series on the significance of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests and the impact their management has on the region. For more, read “Future management of WNC’s national forests up for discussion.

The U.S. Forest Service has begun revisions to a 15-year management plan of the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests. Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, pictured here in October, is a part the Nantahala National Forest’s Cheoah Ranger District. Angie Newsome/Carolina Public Press

The hike to Snooks Nose — an overlook from a narrow rocky ridge in the Curtis Creek watershed near Marion in McDowell County — is for the most part, unremarkable. The short, far-flung footpath is overgrown, steep and deeply rutted in places. What does distinguish this route is its location. The watershed in which it meanders is the first parcel of forest protected by Uncle Sam east of the Mississippi more than a century ago.

The Weeks Act, federal legislation signed into law by President Howard Taft in 1911 gave the U.S. government the ability to purchase private land from willing sellers in order to protect the headwaters of rivers and watersheds in the East. Beginning with the 8,100 acre Curtis Creek purchase in 1911 from the Burke McDowell Lumber Company, the federal government ultimately protected 1.25 million acres of forest land in the Southern Appalachians — an area the size of the state of Delaware – by 1918.

In North Carolina, most of that land came from a relatively small number of sellers: 80 percent of the Pisgah National Forest came from just 29 landowners, including 87,000 acres deeded by Edith Vanderbilt.

While the creation of the national forests in the region is one of the nation’s great conservation stories, according to Mars Hill College environmental historian Kathryn Newfont, its management is not without controversy.

Proof of that can be found most recently in an appeal filed on Nov. 13 by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of three conservation organizations. The groups want the U.S. Forest Service to halt logging in an environmentally sensitive watershed in Pisgah National Forest in Transylvania County.

But it isn’t just conservation and environmental organizations that have a stake in how the forests are managed.

The history, culture and economies of Western North Carolina are deeply woven into how local residents view the use of public forests, which is why many local residents, conservation groups, and others are paying close attention to the current management plan revision of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests that commenced earlier this year – the first revision in nearly two decades. Find a schedule of meetings and how to offer input into the process and eventual new plan here.

Why here?

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The 18-county area included in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests management plan. Map courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service. Click to view full-size image.

At the turn of the 20th century, forests in the Southern Appalachians were being liquidated at a galloping pace. The nation’s roaring industrial production that demanded a colossal stockpile of lumber fueled the boom. The need for southern wood was driven by the fact that forests in the Midwest and Northeast had been logged bare. The backwash of the timber boom in the Southern Appalachians deforested the landscape and altered its ecology; the removal of virgin forest created a cycle of erosion, fire and flood.

While most of the national forest land in the Southern Appalachians was acquired prior to World War II, it wasn’t until 1976 that citizens were able to participate in the management of those lands with the passage of the National Forest Management Act of 1976, which replaced the 1897 Organic Act as the central legislation governing the management of national forests.

Newfont says the Management Act has enabled greater environmental protection of public forests through increased citizen and scientist participation in forest decision making and that grassroots groups have used forest plans as a means to influence policy, such as logging practices, recreational uses and other resource-harvesting practices.

The current management plan that governs the mountain’s two national forests — Pisgah and Nantahala — was last revised in 1994 after a fierce fight from forest activists. Then, forest defenders were responding to what they believed was a wrong-headed plan that called for widespread clear-cutting and mineral exploration that, they said, would harm the forest.

But not only would it impact the forest, it would, Newfont said, keep people, particularly traditional users, from the forest. Newfont said that throughout human history in the Blue Ridge Mountains, there has always existed a set of rules and informal institutions that have managed the forests as shared grounds for fishing, hunting, gathering and grazing.

“The key thing to me is the idea of the southern forests as ‘commons,’” said Newfont, who explained that a commons is a resource that is essentially open to all — unlike a private resource that may prevent access. In some cases, large-scale logging put an end to shared use of the land by preventing traditional practices, such as gathering nuts from mature trees.

While the formation of the Forest Service in 1905, the passage of the Weeks Act and the Management Act protected forests from logging interests in the early 20th century, the management of national forests has also been viewed with some degree of suspicion, which was evident in the fierce opposition to the 1987 forest plan that some local users believed threatened to restrict access to the forest. The 400-page plan, proposed in 1984, was the first for North Carolina national forests under the 1976 legislation.

Local residents viewed the clear-cutting policies proposed in the plan and the easing of mineral exploration rules as having a lack of regard for the continuity of their livelihoods. Their opposition to the logging proposals dovetailed with wilderness-based conservationists’ resistance to clear cutting – albeit for other reasons. The result of their shared opposition to amend the plan, led by the Western North Carolina Alliance, created what many believe to be among the most progressive and environmentally sensitive forest management plans in the nation.

Chnaging demands, changing management

Nearly two decades later, demands on the more than 1 million acres of national forest have changed. One, said the WNC Alliance’s ecologist and public lands director Bob Gale, is the impact of the recreation and tourism economy.

“Recreation brings in the highest revenue on public land,” Gale said. “It’s definitely something that should be maintained, promoted, and managed for both the positive and negative impacts.”

But sharing a public space demanded by many is not so different than a hectic intersection at rush hour — there is bound to be friction.

Gale said that conflicts will likely always be present.

“In crafting a management plan we need to find common ground,” he said. “That’s not easy because it will involve people stepping out of their comfort zone and to be willing to compromise.”

A group addressing user conflicts that may arise during and after the planning process is the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership — an ad-hoc group of several dozen organizations who have a stake in the future management of the forest. The group was spearheaded more than a year ago by the Wilderness Society, said Jill Gottesman, its Southern Appalachian outreach coordinator.

“As a citizen, I am entitled to engage in the planning process, but I also understand the plan is technical and bureaucratic; you can get lost in the weeds if you don’t have the professional background,” Gottesman said. She believes the partnership will add value to the planning process by aiding the forest service in seeking feedback from a wide range of groups.

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“Being the Wilderness Society, we advocate for more wilderness and more protection of our public lands. That’s our corner; but with over 1.1 million acres, there’s room for everything,” she said. ”We wanted to make sure that this tent was really opened for groups where planning is not on their radar and really try to incorporate those voices into the forest planning process.”

Thus far, nearly 50 groups, according to Gottesman, have been involved in the monthly meetings, which they hope will produce a set of recommendations that will inform the forest management plan.

Despite the interest from a wide range of users in the partnership, Gottesman admits that some organizations have been slower coming to the table, including more traditional recreational groups and forest users, such as hunters, wildlife groups and forest product producers.

That may not be a surprise since finding common ground between conservationists and loggers or equestrians and mountain bikers, for instance, may be thorny. But it’s not impossible. After all, the public opposition to clear-cutting in the 1980s and 1990s bound environmentalists and traditional forest users as one.

That model of collaboration steering the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership in Western North Carolina is a tip of the hat to Esther Cunningham, the founder of the WNC Alliance in the 1980s who, Gale said, was able to connect people who shared different interests.

And that’s just it: the more folks willing to hash it out now, Gottesman said, the lower the costs and resources devoted to managing conflict among users and managers in the future.

That’s why the current forest planning process is pivotal, she added, not just for the future of Western North Carolina’s national forests, but for the entire region.

“Wherever you are in Western North Carolina, public lands are always in the backdrop — forests are always in view,” she said. “We’re the next generation of people stewarding the land, and this is one of our biggest opportunities to guide the management of our backyard.”


More in the ongoing series

Future management of WNC’s national forests up for discussion

Jack Igelman

Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jack@igelman.com.

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