A view of Pisgah National Forest. Photo courtesy of Patrick Sullivan/Times-News

Three years down and two to go for revising the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest Plan. According to the current timetable, the revised plan should be approaching the finish line.

But a lot of planning remains to be done as the federally mandated process inches forward again this fall.

Some of that work will take place publicly. Some is taking place behind the scenes. That includes trying to establish harmony between groups of stakeholders with diverging ideas about forest management.

What’s at stake

The re-planning process will set the agenda for two national forests spanning most of Western North Carolina over the next two decades.

The National Forests of North Carolina office of the U.S. Forest Service has overseen an effort to revise the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests Land and Resource Management Plan since 2012. The revision process — which will ultimately oversee more than 1 million acres in 18 mountain counties using an approach that has been largely untested in the Eastern United States — will have innumerable implications for Western North Carolina residents, economy and environment.

A strategic forest plan doesn’t approve any site-specific projects. But it does set overarching goals and desired conditions to achieve social, economic and environmental well-being for the forest.

Past federal legislation and new planning guidelines developed in 2012 dictate that the Forest Service must listen to a wide range of stakeholders and users while applying the best science available to revise a plan that will set the strategy for managing one of North Carolina’s most precious resources.

The effort should end in fall 2017 with the release of a management plan decision.

What’s happening this fall could do much to determine the shape the final plan. In addition to a round of public meetings, the office that guides the plan is under new leadership.

Crucial time period

James Melonas, a deputy supervisor under outgoing forest supervisor Kristen Bail, will serve as the acting chief officer of the National Forests in North Carolina.

His office supervises all four of the state’s national forests and manages revision of the forest plan. Bail left in September for a job with the Bureau of Land Management.

USFS Planning Staff Officer and Acting Forest Planner Michelle Aldridge told Carolina Public Press that Melonas will provide continuity to the planning process. Despite the transition in leadership, Aldridge said Forest Service specialists have been hard at work preparing for the next steps and working internally on the plan development, including preparation of a draft environmental-impact statement analysis — one of two key planning documents — as well as preparing for the November meetings.

“We’re making good progress, but we recognize it’s important that we slow down and make sure our drafts include the right things,” she said.

Two upcoming public meetings will be the first since an earlier round that generated heated discussions among forest advocates with a stake in the plan. Because of those divisions, the management revision process has at times been stormy.

An independent facilitator is coordinating a series of behind-the-scenes gatherings of stakeholders ahead of the two public meetings in November. The goal is to moderate a collaborative effort and restore harmony to the revision process.

Franklin and Asheville will each host a public-input meeting next month. These events should provide information about the process to evaluate land suitable for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System and rivers eligible for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Systems.

Prior to those meetings the Forest Service will release an updated wilderness inventory that responds to previous public comments, which were sometimes critical of specific proposals.

Differences of opinion

The Forest Service hosted six public meetings across Western North Carolina last fall, providing the first look at a potential direction for forest management strategy.

At the meetings, the agency presented draft “desired conditions” for 16 forest-wide “management areas” to propose a social, economic and ecological vision for the forest.

Those meetings set off a fierce debate and exposed division between advocates who wish to see more land protected and defenders of wildlife who hope to see more timber harvesting and timber management, which they say will benefit a range of wildlife species including deer and grouse.

Last April, the Forest Service brought together leaders from three collaborative groups that have formed around the forest plan revision and represent a wide range of forest users: the Pisgah-Nantahala Partnership, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council and the Restoration Collaborative.

The focus of the gathering was to launch a process to restore harmony and mutual understanding.

Unlike national park units which focus on recreation preservation, national forests have a multi-use mandate that makes it difficult to balance the inevitable conflicts among users and interests.

At the collaborative summit, the Forest Service identified several issues in which public perspective varied, related to the planning and the management of the forest: wildlife habitat, special designations, access and recreation.

Wilderness advocates want to see more land added to the national wilderness system. In North Carolina, no land has been added since 1984.

Yet providing special designations, such as wilderness or other special management areas, may limit the way land is used. For instance, wilderness areas may not allow some forms of recreation, such as mountain biking.

Special designation may also limit the ways the forest service can manage stands of timber for wildlife management and for economic interests.

Stakeholders forum

This summer the Forest Service looked for an outside facilitator to reset the collaborative discussion that began last spring.

The National Forest Foundation, an independent nonprofit organization based in Montana, is facilitating the series of sessions this fall and winter with a group of roughly 30 advocates described as “the Stakeholders Forum.”

Karen DiBari of the NFF and facilitator of the Stakeholders Forum sessions said her organization understands the processes, constraints and responsibilities of the Forest Service, “but we have an arms-length relationship.”

She said the goal of the Stakeholders Forum meetings is to focus on the key areas of contention.

“We think that collaborative groups are very creative and can work thru some of the issues in order to build agreement,” DiBari said.

“In my experience in really divisive discussions, people are committed to working things out because they recognize there’s power in it. They recognize it carries much more weight with the decision maker when all interests came together and agree.”

Aldridge of the Forest Service said the NFF has a special ability to achieve the forest service’s goal in a neutral way.

The meeting is not a Forest Service-sponsored meeting, she said, though public foresters will participate in forum meetings. Foresters won’t do this as members of the forums but as technical advisers and subject-matter experts. Foresters will not necessarily make decisions based on meeting outcomes.

Aldridge said the Forest Service is funding the NFF’s work, but how those funds are used will be determined by the NFF.

“I think this is an evolution of the April collaborative meeting to make sure there was agreement on what are the issues here and where we might need to focus more attention and then to set the stage for working together,” Aldridge said.

Federal regulations require the public be involved in the forest planning process. But participation at the recent September meeting was not open to the public or the press.

DiBari said this was in order to focus the discussion among leaders of the collaborative groups, based on an organizing committee’s decision over the summer.

“The committee recommended the (September) meeting not be open to observers in order to build trust among those in the room,” she said.

“People are very passionate about the plan and everyone involved wants there to be vigorous public engagement, but there’s a strong need for deeper discussion to try and work out differences.”

But at the September meeting, the group decided to open future meeting of the Stakeholders Forum to interested observers, DiBari told CPP. Even so, observers will be asked to remain silent so the discussion can operate as efficiently as possible.

“I’m thankful for the Forest Service’s support and thankful that people are willing to sit down at the same table,” said Josh Kelly, the public land field biologist with Asheville-based MountainTrue and participant in the Stakeholders Forum.

The September meeting, said Kelly, was focused on rules of conduct rather than issues directly related to the plan.

“There was a lot of solidarity at the meeting and people working to understand each other and support each other,” he said.

David Whitmire of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council and owner of Headwaters Outfitters also agreed that the Stakeholders Forum represents a sensible step forward.

“We have a lot of hard work to do in a short period of time. If I didn’t feel it is worthwhile I wouldn’t be doing it,” he said.

“I believe in the Stakeholders Forum. It’s a very diverse group and it’s a great opportunity.”

Public input

Aldridge said the work of the NFF is just one aspect of the forest plan revision public involvement spectrum and emphasized the stakeholders forum does not replace the public involvement process.

“We are interested in input from anyone who would like to share with us,” she said.

“It’s just one spoke of the wheel,” Aldridge said. “There’s a lot more that were going to be doing with our broad public input and there will be many opportunities to weigh in. We want to make sure we are creating the best plan we can.”

Kelly also emphasized the public will have important opportunities to participate in the plan revision, in particular, the release of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement scheduled for the spring of 2016.

He said that is “the most important place for public input in the entire revision process. It’s one of the documents where the public has the most influence over the outcome of the forest plan.”

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

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