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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.
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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
Will 700,000 acres in Pisgah, Nantahala be open to logging?
In late October and early November, the U.S. Forest Service hosted six public meetings across the region, providing the first look at potential direction for the management strategy of the forest.
At the meetings, which were held across Western North Carolina, the agency presented draft “desired conditions” for 16 forest-wide “management areas” to propose a social, economic and ecological vision for the forest.
Management areas, according to the Forest Service, are “areas that have similar management intent and a common management strategy” and “are delineated to provide plan direction for areas to meet specific management needs.”
Stevin Westcott, a spokesman with the National Forests of North Carolina, a division of the U.S. Forest Service, said that the proposed desired conditions are based on over 1,000 comments collected over the past two years and the best available science. He emphasized that everything on display is a draft and nothing is final.
Among the 16 proposed management areas, two of them (MA-1 and MA-2A) encompass nearly 700,000 acres that focus on forest habitat diversity and resilience, restoration and connectivity, and allows the Forest Service timber production and timber harvesting as a tool for management. (The Forest Service defines timber harvesting as the “removal of trees for wood fiber use and other multiple use purposes; and timber production as the purposeful growing, tending, harvesting, and regeneration of regulated crops of trees to be cut into logs, bolts, or other round sections for industrial or consumer use.) The agency could also use prescribed burning, mowing and other management tools in these areas.
This alarmed several conservation and wilderness-advocacy groups, who then launched a public relations campaign decrying the potential for logging in the national forests.
Forest Service officials say some of those statements were not accurate.
“While there may be tens of thousands of acres in a proposed management area, it doesn’t mean that tens of thousands of acres will be managed or harvested in a year,” Westcott said, adding that approximately 1,500 acres are harvested in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests each year. “Over the span of a 15-year life span of the two forests, an estimated 15 percent or less of the forest may be managed through the use of fire, harvest or other means.”
“Large clear cuts of the past no longer occur on the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests,” he said. “Today’s timber harvests are based on science, with most timber harvest consisting of two-age, shelterwood, and group selection harvests, where trees are left behind.”
Other management areas include the backcountry, with 134,000 acres; wilderness study areas, with 26,900 acres; Congress-designated wilderness, with 66,500 acres; and significant recreation and heritage corridors, with 46,600 acres.
Jim Gray, a retiree and hunter who lives in the Cowee area of Macon County, was pleased with what he saw.
“This is the first meeting the [Forest Service] has demonstrated that they have listened,” he said. “What I’ve seen here shows that they recognize the importance of wildlife in the area.”
But some remain concerned, including Hugh Irwin, a landscape conservation planner with The Wilderness Society. He said he’s worried that the Forest Service is proposing specific areas as suitable land for timber harvesting before potential wilderness areas have been inventoried and evaluated.
“All of the pieces of the puzzle are not in place,” he said, “We are alarmed at this proposal and feel that they went further than they should have.”