Pisgah, Nantahala remanagement plan raises the question, WNC communities debating the answer
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
UPDATE: The U.S. Forest Service recently extended the comment period on potential wilderness areas until Feb. 27. Additionally, the Haywood County Commissioners, on Feb. 2, also passed a resolution standing in “opposition to any additional wilderness/designated areas where land management practices are reduced within Haywood County.”
The Shining Rock Wilderness in the Pisgah National Forest — at the high crest of the Pisgah Ledge, just southwest of Asheville — encompasses everything that is both pleasing and worrisome about the protection of North Carolina’s and the nation’s wild spaces.
It’s hard not to love the place. Five 6,000 foot tall peaks soar along the ridge crest, offering gorgeous views of some of some of North Carolina’s most rugged terrain. The wilderness is named for the band of shiny quartz along the spine of Shining Rock Mountain and is known for its popular network of trails including one of the region’s most beloved footpaths, the Art Loeb Trail.
The 18,000-acre area was one of the first 50 places across the United States safeguarded by the Wilderness Act — the highest form of federal land protection — a half-century ago. If there ever was a place to protect for its natural beauty in the Southern Appalachians, this is arguably it.
Yet, what has emerged in the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest Management Plan Revision process is that not everyone sees eye-to-eye about how Western North Carolina’s public forests should be managed for future generations. The debate parallels a national conversation about the future of wild places on the 50th anniversary of the landmark legislation. Some say wilderness if futile. Others argue that it has become more important than ever.
While the Shining Rock Wilderness Area will continue to have the highest level of national land protection available, the future of recommending additional land for wilderness protection and other special land designations in Western North Carolina’s national forests is not so clear.
So far, at least five mountain county commissions have passed resolutions saying they want no additions to the wilderness base in their counties, moves that have been supported by forest users who desire greater flexibility in managing forest for wildlife, which may be restricted by wilderness designations.
On the other hand, wilderness advocacy organizations have mounted a public campaign in response to information presented at by the U.S. Forest Service in 2014 that, they say, may pose a threat to some of the region’s most wild and remote places.
Yet both views share a legitimate question for what’s at stake in the revision process: what is the best way to oversee the forests now and for future generations?
New potential wilderness areas identified in WNC
A decade after the protection of the Shining Rock Wilderness and the Linville Gorge Wilderness in North Carolina in 1964, the Eastern Wilderness Act of 1975 added three more areas of wilderness within the public domain. Nearly a decade later, the North Carolina Wilderness Act of 1984 designated 68,000 acres of additional wilderness throughout the state and established 25,800 wilderness study acres. No land has been added to North Carolina’s wilderness base since.
In addition to the current 66,550 acres of wilderness in the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, are five existing wilderness study areas totaling more than 25,000 acres.
Those areas, located in Pisgah National Forest, are:
- Harper Creek Wilderness Study Area – 7,138 acres
- Lost Cove Wilderness Study Area – 5,708 acres
- Craggy Mountain Wilderness Study Area – 1,208 acres
And in Nantahala National Forest, they are:
- Overflow Creek – 3,200 acres
- Snowbird Wilderness Study Area – 8,490 acres
As part of public forest planning regulations, the Forest Service is required to identify and evaluate land suitable for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System during the forest management planning revision process. Of the five study areas, two have not been recommended for inclusion in the wilderness system. However, until designated or released by Congress, all wilderness study areas are managed to preserve their wilderness characteristics.
And it is a topic that has been the subject of debate in the revision process.
“The Wilderness Act recognizes the value of protecting the last remaining lands that are the least impacted by human influence,” said Hugh Irwin, a landscape conservation planner with The Wilderness Society, whose North Carolina headquarters is based in Sylva. “Wilderness remains one of the few places where human impacts are limited and restricted; it’s one of the few ideas and measures we have ever taken to keep nature and natural processes a relevant part of our world.”
But wildlife advocate have raised concerns about designating land as wilderness.
“I think the Forest Service has gotten the message that many are interested in wildlife,” said Gordon Warburton, the ecoregion supervisorof the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. “We’re not against wilderness, but we’re interested in more places where the forest can be managed for habitat diversity.”
In April 2014, the Forest Service shared maps of an inventory of potential wilderness that included nearly 200,000 acres of national forest in Pisgah and Nantahala national forests that are suitable for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.
In mid-November, the Forest Service released updated inventory maps for potential additions to wilderness and made them available for viewing on the Forest Plan Revision website. The Forest Service accepted comments on the inventory through Jan. 5, 2014.
As part of the inventory process, potential wilderness areas must be 5,000 acres or more, unless they are a self-contained island or valley or contiguous with another existing wilderness area.
The land identified in the inventory will be evaluated for wilderness characteristics, such as its ecological, historical, cultural, or scenic value; whether there are opportunities for solitude; and whether the land can be managed to preserve its character.
In addition to future wilderness designations, as part of the forest plan revision process the Forest Service is also evaluating sections of land with special features that may be worthy of other special designations.
A designated area is an area or feature identified and managed to maintain its unique special character or purpose, including wilderness, Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Scenic Areas, among others. Within the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, approximately 275,000 acres have one or more special designations.
And are any of these subject to logging? It’s a tricky question. Much of the land likely has some restrictions, but some may be available for timber management.
The analysis of potential wilderness will be presented to the public in a draft Environmental Impact Statement. A draft forest plan will offer recommendations for future wilderness areas and special land designations. Stevin Westcott, a spokesman with the National Forests of North Carolina, a division of the U.S. Forest Service, said that the Forest Service will hold additional meetings this spring to present a range of alternatives for the revised Forest Plan. The release of the draft EIS and draft forest plan may be delayed so the Forest Service can incorporate feedback and comments from these public meetings.
Westcott said that details on the meetings and an updated timeline will be shared with the public soon. A final land management decision is scheduled to be presented late in 2016.
“The Forest Service is conducting additional public meetings this spring to further our collaborative efforts by sharing and facilitating a dialogue around a potential range of alternatives,” he said. “The alternatives will be based on the comments we’ve received since the last round of public meetings last fall. The meetings will also provide the opportunity for the Forest Service to share the initial results of the wilderness evaluation and the potential recommendations for wilderness in the different alternatives. Our goal is to engage the public and stakeholders this spring in these collaborative meetings before the draft EIS is released for formal public comment later this year.”
Land recommended for wilderness in the forest planning process will be studied for their wilderness characteristics to evaluate whether they are worthy of wilderness designation. Ultimately, before land becomes wilderness, the Secretary of Agriculture recommends wilderness designations to the president and then to the U.S. Congress for a vote.
Younger forests, more habitat?
A chief concern among those who take issue with additional wilderness and other special land designations is that they may prevent public land agencies from using management techniques that create a variety of forest habitats, such as timber harvesting to create mixed age forests, that they say is needed to promote wildlife diversity.
Linda Ordiway, a regional wildlife biologist with the Ruffed Grouse Society based in Pennsylvania, has participated in the plan revision and attended a recent public meeting in Murphy. Ordiway is advocating for an expansion of the amount of forest stands with trees 15 years old or younger, also known as early successional habitat, in the national forests of Western North Carolina.
“The science supports the need to create varying forest stand structure across the landscape,” Ordiway said, adding that many species depend on young forest. For example, migratory songbirds require young forests as stopover areas for food and cover.
As a result of past forest management practices, Ordiway said, “there is evidence of decreasing populations of multiple wildlife species associated with young regenerating forest habitat.”
The Forest Service – so far — agrees. Officials have said that there should be a balance of young and old forest. In the first phase of the forest plan revision process, the Forest Service identified the need “to provide direction that will increase the amount of young forest across the landscape.”
According to the revision plan executive summary, 1.8 percent of land is young forest (0-15 years old). That’s below the 10 percent goal of early successional habitat targeted in the current national forest management plan, which was revised in 1994.
While non-game species may benefit from younger forests, so too will game such as deer and grouse, sportsmen say.
Warburton, of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, who would also like to see more land available to timber harvesting, said he is concerned the national forest is struggling to fulfill its mission of being managed for multiple uses, which includes more scientifically driven wildlife habitat management.
He said that what he sees as a lack of timber management has swung the “pendulum” of management practices in the national forest to favor aesthetics over wildlife habitats that benefit from managing timber harvest.
“We need some younger forest. In the past two decades we’ve swung too far to one side,” Warburton said. “Having too much of one thing is never good. For us, diversity [of habitat] is the name of the game.”
While wilderness designation is a lengthy bureaucratic process that requires congressional approval and the president’s signature, assigning a land a wilderness study area or attaching a special designation can narrow the range of uses and management techniques.
“Unlike the National Park Service, which has a goal of managing the ecosystem without human interference, the [Forest Service] is obligated to manage for multiple use of the forest,” he said. “We view the forest as a working forest, which allows for all spectrum of timber management, including places where timber harvesting is restricted. It shouldn’t just be ‘no’ or ‘all.’”
What about logging?
Of course, providing more early successional habitat means more tree cutting, which isn’t always a popular strategy.
The release of proposed management classification at public plan revision meetings in the fall stoked concerns among wilderness advocates. In question are proposed management designations encompassing 700,000 acres of Pisgah and Nantahala national forests that environmental groups say would be destructive to the forest.
Forest advocates such as The Wilderness Society, Wild South and the Southern Environmental Law Center launched a public relations campaign stating that the Forest Service is proposing industrial-scale logging in the vast majority of the forest, a statement that was repeated by many media outlets across Western North Carolina.
DJ Gerken, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a November press release that the plan will put “the healthiest forests we have left on the chopping block.” The organizations then argued that if the proposal were implemented it would close popular recreation areas, damage scenery, cut new roads in sensitive areas and impact revenue earned from tourism.
But Forest Service officials say that statement is not accurate.
Gerken is referring to 700,000 acres of land that make up two proposed management areas (1 and 2A). Westcott, estimates that less than 300,000 acres those two management areas would likely be usable for timber production since the area includes rocky outcrops, riparian areas and other features that would make large areas unsuitable for timber production or harvest and that potential areas of special designation and potential wilderness areas have not yet been removed from the 700,000 acres.
Overall, Westcott said that his estimate is less than the total acreage that is tentatively suitable under the current management plan.
“It’s safe to say that there is some degree of limitation on harvest activities on 100 percent of the forest lands,” Westcott said. He said that timber harvesting throughout the forest is subject to standards, restrictions and requirements that take into account, for instance, scenery, water quality, soil erosion and threatened or endangered species.
And while rules and regulations are a factor, so is money.
Westcott said that, given the agency’s limited resources, actively managing that much forest may have been an unrealistic target and underscores the challenge of managing such a vast resource with a tighter budget and less staff.
While budgets are unlikely to expand significantly in the near future, the vision the Forest Service lays out in the next management plan may have the potential to open – or close – portions of the forest to more timber harvesting depending on the implementation of proposed management areas.
Warburton said he understands how logging can be a very divisive topic based on past history in the Southern Appalachians.
“The Forest Service made some mistakes in the past that were really well publicized,” he acknowledged, but said that the Forest Service of today is different, and he’s open to discussing additions to the wilderness base.
“Before we start adding more designations we want to know what can be managed for wildlife habitat,” Warburton said. “We want folks to understand the connection between habitat and promoting a diversity of wildlife. We’d like to see the pendulum swing the other way.”
Is wilderness the problem?
Yet wilderness advocates say there is way more at stake than just wildlife habitat protection.
Jill Gottesman, a conservation specialist with The Wilderness Society, said protecting areas from road building and logging are an integral part of the mosaic of public land. She’s alarmed that wilderness — both the concept and the land itself — is viewed as a “problem” or a roadblock to solving issues that are considered a higher priority.
No wilderness land has been added in North Carolina since 1984, and backers of wilderness would like to see that change. They argue that under-protected sections of land with special value in the forest deserve long-term protection.
The Wilderness Society has submitted to the Forest Service 41 sections of land — totaling more than 300,000 acres in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests known as North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures — they believe are deserving of better protections for their conservation and recreational value.
“The role of wilderness and unbroken backcountry is becoming ever-more important on public lands as we lose precisely those attributes on private land at an accelerating rate,” Gottesman said. “If I were to single out one purpose for our public lands that surpasses all others it would be this: to provide things that private lands cannot or do not provide.”
Among those things, she said, are recreation, solitude, undisrupted fish and wildlife habitat, clean air and water, and critical habitat for many species of wildlife that depend on mature forest.
Irwin, also with The Wilderness Society, said that many of the threats to the forest — such as the impacts of global warming and the spread of invasive pests — are exacerbated by timber harvesting and road building.
“Our national forests are among the few places on the landscape where there remain strongholds of areas that function as healthy natural forest,” he said. “The designated areas and the candidates for designation are among the most intact and naturally functioning forest.” He said that while some species and uses may benefit from timber management and young forest, other multiple uses — from providing clean drinking water, habitat for native species and recreation — suffer from or are incompatible with timber management.
Gottesman said that while The Wilderness Society is not opposed to logging, they will continue to advocate for increased protection of land they believe is deserving of greater protection. But, she added, they are also committed to finding areas of agreement with other viewpoints.
Warburton too is hopeful that the outcome of the process will be collaborative.
“There will be conflict and disagreement,” Warburton admitted. “It’s going to a process that we have to work out together.”