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About the Forest Lookouts series
This in-depth reporting series explores the future of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests which are – for the first time in 20 years – undergoing an extensive re-planning process. Hiking through the national forests, paddling a river or fishing a stream, you can’t see the plan. But this process – which will ultimately oversee more than 1 million acres in 18 mountain counties using a process that has been largely untested on the East Coast – will have innumerable impacts on Western North Carolina’s residents, economies and environment. In Forest Lookouts, Carolina Public Press will pull back the layers of bureaucracy to report on the plan’s players and leaders, analyze the plan’s inception and implementation, find what community leaders, elected officials and conservationists think are the biggest issues facing the forests and explore the best ways to manage the forest for future generations — all to help residents across North Carolina understand what’s going on and how to participate.
Part One: Diving In: What’s at stake for Pisgah and Nantahala
Part Two: WNC’s National Forests: Is the public in? Or are we out?
Part Three: 50 years after the Wilderness Act, what’s the future of WNC’s wild places?
Sidebar: Understand the law: The Wilderness Act
Sidebar: Advocates, forest managers debate national forest logging claims
FRANKLIN — Most of the roughly 100 chairs set up in Tartan Hall at the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Franklin on the evening of Oct. 28 were filled with fishermen, hunters, environmental and conservation advocates, U.S. Forest Service observers and others. The gathering was the second of six public meetings hosted by the U.S. Forest Service throughout Western North Carolina in October and November. There, national forest officials shared information about the proposed Pisgah and Nantahala national forest plan, including potential management areas and drafts of proposed desired conditions statements that will ultimately guide the management of the forests for the next 15 years.
There’s a lot to discuss: plants, people, animals, wilderness, recreation, timber harvesting, wildlife management. That’s just for starters.
Then, consider the economic, cultural and overall environmental significance of the more than 1 million acres of public lands spanning 18 mountain counties.
In June 2015, nearly four decades after legislation was enacted that stipulated that the public be engaged in forest planning, the U.S. Forest Service will present proposed forest plan alternatives. The agency will also issue a draft Environmental Impact Statement, which includes an analysis based on what experts and users of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests have to say. Ultimately, the documents will influence the best way to protect the future of public forests in Western North Carolina.
But it’s a process that’s unique and largely untested on the East Coast, one that national park observers and advocates from across the country are watching. This process offers a testing ground for national forest managers who face new guidelines on how, when and to what degree the public can influence the forests’ future.
Changes to public input
Until 1976, the public was excluded from participating in the process of deciding when, where and how to manage public lands. The passage of the National Forest Management Act of 1976 became the central legislation governing the management of the nations public forests, said Kathryn Newfont, associate professor of history, chair of the Ramsey Center for Regional Studies at Mars Hill University and author of Blue Ridge Commons: Environmental Activism and Forest History in Western North Carolina.
According to Newfont, the National Forest Management Act enabled greater environmental protection of public forests through increased citizen and scientist participation in forest decision making. The legislation also empowered citizen groups to use 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. And citizen groups mobilized in droves across Western North Carolina during the process.
Fueled by widespread opposition to an early draft of the plan, a grassroots effort led to an appeal and a major overhaul of the land and resource plan for the region’s national forests. Forest defenders responded to what they believed was a wrong-headed plan calling for widespread clear-cutting and mineral exploration that, they said, would harm the forest. The resulting plan, finalized in 1994, wrote Newfont, was considered one of the most environmentally sensitive management plans in the nation.
Yet, the current concerns, uses and threats to the forest have changed since the inception of the national forests over a century ago — and even since 1994.
Currently there are 127 national forests in the United States and its territories that require a plan. Among those, many are overdue or were delayed as the federal government developed a new planning process. The new planning guidelines for national forests, known as the “2012 planning rule,” governs the process of revising the Pisgah and Nantahala forests management plan. That year, eight national forests were selected as the first forests to implement of the new planning rule. Three additional forests began planning efforts in late 2012 and early 2013: Flathead National Forest in Montana, the Francis Marion National Forest in South Carolina and the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests in North Carolina, making the Western North Carolina process one of the first times the Forest Service will put the process to the test.
Will ‘going local’ be too small? Or is it just right?
The purpose of a forest plan is strategic in nature, and it does not approve any site-specific projects. It does, however, set overarching goals and desired conditions to achieve social, economic and environmental well-being for the forest. That can be a difficult balance; the multi-use focus of the forest service makes it difficult to balance the inevitable conflicts among users.
Kristin Bail, supervisor of National Forests in North Carolina, which manages the four national forests in the state and a $24 million annual budget, said that there are two pillars of the revision process: collaboration with users of the forest and using the best available science.
“That’s the difficult balance,” Bail said, pointing out that what the public wants and the best-available scientific information may not necessarily align. Nevertheless, she said the Forest Service wants to be responsive to the intent of the public. “Allowing folks to engage with each other richens the conversations,” she said.
As of September, managers have held 16 public meetings since the forest plan revision began. During the initial phase of the revision process, 14 public sessions were held in communities throughout Western North Carolina. Nearly 200 people attended two sessions in April and July to help interpret the “2012 planning rule” as it should apply to the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests.
Jill Gottesman, the Southern Appalachian outreach coordinator of The Wilderness Society, was among the participants at several public meetings. She’s part of the leadership team of the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership, a volunteer collaboration representing a wide range of regional interests that has involved more than 40 organizations. Among its members are the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, Trout Unlimited and the Western North Carolina Alliance.
“Without collaboration you end up with a few major vocal stakeholder groups with different pieces of the pie they are fighting for on well-ingrained issues. The Forest Service will come with various alternative plans, but none of the plans give everyone something; they split the difference,” Gottesman said. “One of the most unfortunate things you end up with is litigation that holds up the process and costs time and money and you end up with everyone back in their own corner.”
Kevin Colburn of American Whitewater attended the July meeting and said his organization is advocating for special protection status for more rivers and streams. Colburn has 14 years of working on forest planning issues throughout the United States, and he said that he believes the Forest Service has learned and adapted to make the plan revision process more effective.
“The paradigm that everyone should be equally unhappy is not true,” Colburn said. “Forest service planning is designed to put it back towards the middle — which is a sustainable outcome that supports multi-uses.”
Still he has some concerns. In particular, he said he believes that forest planning tends to favor local opinion.
He may have a point. Newfont observed that the 1976 National Forest Management Act gave “grassroots groups unprecedented power to influence national forest policy.”
Colburn, who returned to Asheville after more than a decade in Montana, recently participated in a National Forest plan revision process in Idaho. He said one of the challenges of the process was engaging people across such a wide geographic area. While North Carolina isn’t as vast as Big Sky country, the current plan covers 18 counties. Attending a meeting in Asheville from, say, Hayesville in Clay County or Robbinsville in Graham County is still a long drive and poses a significant commitment.
“There’s a feeling that since this is our backyard we should have a bigger say in management, but [American Whitewater] members from around the nation have powerful experiences here, too, and want to have a say about how these resources are managed. If you are local and you have an economic interest, it’s a very different math to show up at these public meetings than if you are a paddler or climber in Atlanta,” he said. “If they are citizens and passionate about the resource, their ideas about how it should be managed should carry as much weight.”
In other words, he said, people who live in Atlanta or Charlotte who use the forest should have as much say in the process as people who use the forest and live next door.
Gottesman, of The Wilderness Society, agreed. She said that the national forest belongs to all U.S. taxpayers. And, she added, many of the issues faced by the national forest — global warming, special land designations, and water quality to name a few — “transcend local issues.”
That is why, she argued, the planning process should look at management from a larger context. For instance, water flowing from national forests impact communities beyond their boundaries and those residents may not be aware of the forest plan and how it could impact downstream water supplies.
Yet balancing local interests with national ones is what makes forest planning especially tricky. On one hand, the forests are a national resource. On the other, there’s a significant local connection to the land.
Josh Kelly, the public lands field biologist at the Western North Carolina Alliance, said that the history of people living off the land in Western North Carolina is a vital link to understanding how the forest should be managed. “There’s a long tradition of wildcrafting and harvesting that give the forest a sense of place to many people,” he said. “That connection is what makes the forest here so special.”
Issue No. 1: Wilderness
Both Kelly’s and Gottesman’s organizations are advocating for more wilderness designations — an issue that, in past planning efforts, has been a divisive topic in Western North Carolina.
In 1978, wilderness advocates and logging and hunting interests duked it out in public in the wake of the Forest Service’s second Roadless Area Review and Evaluations (known as RARE II) wilderness designation initiative. The initiative called for more areas to be recommended for wilderness status. To achieve the status, land is recommended, approved by the U.S. Congress and signed off by the president – a lengthy bureaucratic process.
The logging industry and traditional users of the forest, including hunters, fiercely opposed any additional land set aside for wilderness, and the local media often reported the confrontation as one that pitted “locals” versus “outsiders.” For example, an editorial in The Franklin Press, written by the newspaper’s editors and titled “Not for Just a Few,” said, “Macon County, you and I cannot afford to give up this land for the use of a small minority. Let them go to the park [Great Smoky Mountains National Park].”
In her book on the history of forests in Western North Carolina, Newfont quoted a local woods-product businessman as saying the proposed wilderness is “a land grab by hikers and backpackers, mostly from Florida and the Midwest, for their exclusive use.”
Nevertheless, in the 1980s, the two interests eventually found common ground and rallied together to call for less clear cutting than what was proposed in the first Pisgah and Nantahala forest management plan.
And that’s just it — disagreements are bound to emerge in managing such a vast natural resource with a multi-use mandate. Emerging as a central issue is a desire among wildlife advocates for more early successional forest habitat and fewer specially designated areas for wilderness, which they say will limit the Forest Service’s tools to manage wildlife diversity.
And some Western North Carolina counties and towns are already voicing “official” opinions on the issue.
So far, four county commissions — in Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Macon counties — and the town of Mills River, in Henderson County, have passed resolutions opposing any additional wilderness areas in the national forests.
Is the Forest Service pushing its limits?
“There’s always going to be that conflict between national interests and how we implement conservation locally,” said Gordon Warburton, the Marion-based mountain ecoregion supervisor of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, a state agency that regulates wildlife across the state. He cautioned that “if you attempt to impart conservation and work without local interests, it won’t be effective.”
Allet Little, a planning staff officer with the Forest Service, acknowledged that the connection to national forests runs deep, not just in North Carolina, but throughout the nation. She recently completed a 120-day assignment from the Ouachita National Forest, which spans Oklahoma and Arkansas, to lend experience to the North Carolina office in the planning process.
“Throughout the nation, interest is generally high in what national forests are doing, and people are generally well-informed and care very deeply about them,” Little said. “At the forest management level, it’s very important to stay open to all sides of the story. It’s very important to stay in touch with the public and to expect an engaged public.”
Kelly, of the WNC Alliance, supports the notion of interaction between the national forests and its users.
“There is a social process that happens during forest planning. It gives time for folks to talk and problem solve,” Kelly said. He said he worries that some of the interests may slip into a mindset of past public planning efforts — such as the RARE II debates of the late 1970s and early 1980s. “The mindset is that you fight each other.”
He’s also concerned that the Forest Service may be under pressure to get the plan done quickly and that, given current budgeting, it’s not enough time to do it right. According to Little, the budget for the planning process is roughly $2 million over the next four years. Among the changes mandated by the 2012 planning rule is shortening the plan revision time frame from 5-7 years to 3-4 years and reducing the cost from roughly $5 million to $7 million to between $2 million and $4 million.
“Given that this is among the most-visited national forests in the nation, I don’t see this being given any special resources,” Kelly said.
Warburton, too, said that the Forest Service staff is pushed to the limit. Still, he believes they’ve done a good job of managing the process so far. Much better, he argued, than the last planning process in the 1980s in which he participated.
“It’s important to realize that it’s not the Forest Service of yesterday,” he said. “We’re going to have to trust them in the process, too.”
By all accounts, the planning process has been congenial so far. And with the current round of meetings such as the one in Franklin being the Forest Service’s first crack at sharing their vision, it may be a peek into what the future management may look like.
“The proposed management designations are very favorable for wildlife,” said Warburton. “But the devil’s in the detail. There’s still a long way to go in the revision.”
But not everyone in Franklin was as optimistic about the information shared at the meeting. Gottesman, of The Wilderness Society, said that while everything presented at the meeting was in draft form, she’s concerned.
“We understand that you have to start somewhere, but this isn’t a positive picture,” she said, sharing the worry of her colleague, Hugh Irwin, also of The Wilderness Society, that the Forest Service has laid out proposed management designations before potential wilderness areas have been evaluated.
“All of the pieces of the puzzle are not in place,” Irwin said. “We are alarmed at this proposal and feel that they went further than they should have.”
At the Franklin meeting, Forest Service officials said that they are currently revising their inventory of potential wilderness based on public comments. Once the wilderness inventory phase is complete, the agency will evaluate those sections of land, which will inform their recommendation for future wilderness designation — the highest form of land protection in the nation.
“We take the revision process very seriously, but we have to operate from the functional center. One hundred years ago the slopes were denuded — it was the land no one wanted,” said Stevin Westcott, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. “I think the Forest Service in North Carolina has been a model for sustainable forest management around the world. The future is more sustainable management. The question is how we do it.”
In the initial phase of the planning process, the Forest Service collected and compiled data and other information on the current state of the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests. During the assessment phase, which was completed in March 2014, the Forest Service received comments from a wide range of organizations and more than 400 individuals. Based on the public’s input, 55 items from the 1994 plan requires a “need for change”. The items in the need for change statement ranged from a need to better recognize the impact of the national forests on local economies; understanding the impact of climate change; and the management of cultural and sacred sites.
Earlier in October, the Forest Service launched its next round of community meetings, making the plan revision in the second of three phases.
The Forest Service will present a draft Environmental Impact Statement and proposed forest plan alternatives in June 2015. The final Environmental Impact Statement and the final decision for the revised forest plan are currently scheduled to be completed in August 2016.
Documents to consider
- The preliminary need for change document [PDF]
- The assessment executive summary [PDF]
- The assessement [PDF]
The public may contact the Forest at any time at the following address: NCPlanRevision@fs.fed.us. If possible, put a title on your email so that forest planners can direct the question or comment to the most knowledgeable specialist. Personal contact may also be made by calling the Forest Service at 828-257-4200.
We want to hear from you
- What are your questions, concerns, ideas and analysis about the future of the region’s national forests? Send your comments and questions to Jack Igelman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- We also want to hear your stories! What’s your first memory of the forests? Did you or your family members have a part is forming the region’s national forests? Send your memories, photos and mementos to Editor Angie Newsome at email@example.com, using the subject line: National Forest Memories.