FRANKLIN — Designated wilderness areas in the Pisgah and Nantahala National forests could increase by as much as 362,400 acres, placing more than a third of these federally owned lands off limits for many human activities.
But that acreage only represents lands that the U.S. Forest Service has included in a new inventory of potential additions to the National Wilderness Preservation System, a list the agency unveiled Monday at a public meeting in Franklin. A recommendation on whether any given parcel should actually receive special preservation status will come later.
The public is being asked to provide input on the inventoried lands between now and December 15 using an online form. The Forest Service will use this feedback in evaluating each parcel and eventually analyzing its potential and practicality for designation as wilderness.
The agency expects to release recommendations next year on what should happen with each inventoried area. All, none or some of the areas could be recommended for wilderness. Inventoried areas not recommended for wilderness designation may be recommended for varying types of public management and access.
The inventory of possible new wilderness sites released this week nearly doubles the territory the Forest Service compiled last year. New federal policies set in place in January forced a review and expansion of the original proposals. This allowed for inclusion of more areas, including some with less width or with gated and closed roads.
The Forest Service also released a separate inventory of 53 free-flowing rivers and streams within the two WNC national forests that could be preserved as Wild and Scenic Rivers and an online evaluation form for comment on those locations.
Federal law requires the Forest Service to create both inventories during its ongoing process of revising its plan for the two Western North Carolina national forests. A draft edition of the new plan is scheduled to be released in the spring.
An estimated crowd of close to 100 attended the session in Franklin, asking questions and discussing the issues with Forest Service agents and members of Stakeholder groups that have been involved in the process up to this point. A second session covering the same material is slated for 6-8 p.m., Nov. 16 at the University of North Carolina at Asheville’s 2015 Mountain View Room at Kimmel Arena.
Comments from those in attendance showed a clear range of viewpoints on what the Forest Service is doing, how well they’re doing it and what lands ought to be included.
One attendee challenged the Forest Service over having set up a comment process that heavily relies on online tools. In answer to several questions for details, agents had referred people to the Forest Service website where detailed lists and interactive maps appear. The comment forms beings used during the process also appear on the site.
The questioner complained that many in the region do not have access to computers and may be from an older generations who aren’t used to computers. Internet access in many rural portions of WNC is also limited or slow.
Agents responded that members of the public could also visit local Forest Service offices to view information and provide comment.
A few in attendance viewed the process as a threat. One speaker asserted aloud that, when combined with existing wilderness areas, the proposed acreage would occupy more than half of his county’s territory. Others who spoke with CPP later suggested this was mathematically impossible.
Another worried that provisions are needed to remove lands from preserved status when catastrophe — such as a major blight — makes continued unmanaged preservation undesirable.
Charlene Hogue of Bryson City told CPP that she disapproves of what’s likely to come of the process.
“The national forests are supposed to be multiple-use,” said Hogue, whose organization is the Freedom and Land Rights Coalition. Noting the importance of a sustainable supply of timber in setting up the national forests, she worries that efforts to designate more sites as wilderness will lead to heightened restrictions on nearly all human activities in those areas.
Although Forest Service officials talk about wilderness areas that are open to certain types of recreation and opportunities for such recreation is supposed to be one of the qualifiers for the wilderness and scenic river designations, Hogue believes that in the end only elite hikers will have access.
She accused the Forest Service of “stealing public lands” that were originally set aside for the people’s use.
Hogue sees the result as taking away the livelihood of many people in rural mountain areas who have relied on working the resources in National Forests. Among those, she recalled her father, who she said lost his career as a logger when environmental groups successfully sued to protect the red cockaded woodpecker.
“People see the environmentalists as such bleeding hearts,” Hogue said. “But they don’t care about people. They don’t recognize any type of rural lifestyle relying on natural resources as legitimate.”
She warned that employees of environmental groups have to keep coming up with issues in order to keep bringing in donations and making money.
But Hogue thinks the wilderness approach is detrimental to the region’s economy.
“Any time there’s a concentration of federal land, you have poverty,” she said.
Others took more of a wait-and-see stance regarding the Forest Service evaluation process.
An advocate for hunting who talked with CPP said he believes managed forests are healthier for wildlife than preserved forests. He doesn’t necessarily want to see any additional acreage recommended for wilderness, but he recognizes that nothing about compiling the inventory of potential new wilderness acreage commits the Forest Service to expanding wilderness areas.
He noted that Forest Service employees haven’t made any recommendations at this point, just carried out their duties under the law in creating inventories.
“They’re just doing their jobs,” he said.