Every day, our journalism dismantles barriers and shines a light on the critical overlooked and under-reported issues important to all North Carolinians.
According to a U.S. Geological Survey topographic map of the Shining Rock quadrangle, Butter Gap, located in Transylvania County near the granite dome of Cedar Rock mountain in the Pisgah National Forest, is not what it seems.
“The map is wrong,” said longtime North Carolina Outward Bound School instructor Corey Hadden. According to the map produced in the 1970s, the saddle labeled Butter Gap is too far east. In fact, some of his colleagues refer to the mislabeled feature as “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Gap.”
Hadden’s knowledge is an example of the on-the-ground intelligence the U.S. Forest Service is hoping to gather from the public as part of the Wilderness and Wild and Scenic River evaluation, a component of the forest plan revision of Western North Carolina’s 1.1 million acres of federal public forest.
While the map may be in error, the genuine Butter Gap is indisputable. The busy trail junction marks the meeting of several popular hiking and mountain biking routes, and during the summer, traveled heavily by the cluster of camps and outdoor programs based throughout Transylvania County.
Whichever the name, both gaps could possibly, one day far off, become part of the National Wilderness Preservation System — the highest level of land protection in the United States.
Butter Gap is within an 8,681-acre section of land that has been included in a much larger inventory of WNC lands and rivers recently compiled by the Forest Service.
The inventory, which encompasses 362,000 acres and 53 river segments throughout the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, identifies areas that may be suitable for addition to the National Wilderness Preservation System or designation as part of the Wild and Scenic River System.
The Forest Service is preparing to evaluate the inventory to decide which parcels, if any, will be recommended for these special levels of protection.
As part of the evaluation, until December 15 the Forest Service is asking the public to review maps and descriptions available online. The feedback from this process will also help the agency to craft management alternatives presented in a draft Environmental Impact Statement, the next major milestone in the forest plan revision process scheduled. The DEIS is scheduled for delivery to the public next spring.
While the process is churning out valuable information, such as the correct identification of Butter Gap, it’s also raising tensions among members of the public and advocacy groups with very different ideas for how North Carolina’s national forests should be managed.
How much land?
But will all 360,000 acres and each of the 53 rivers be selected for special protection?
Probably not, said James Melonas, the acting supervisor of all four national forests in North Carolina.
“We’re at the top of the funnel,” he said, adding that the land and rivers included in the inventory meet a basic set of requirements and will eventually be whittled down to a smaller figure.
“We’re gathering specific information that we can go through so we can go from a broad inventory to something that we can analyze.”
While special land designation is an important aspect of the plan, Melonas said, he’s hoping observers stay focused on more global land management themes of the revision process, including “connecting people to land, enhancing and restoring resiliency to the forest, and providing clean and abundant water.”
Nevertheless, the discussion of wilderness and river designations has received a significant amount of scrutiny relative to other portions of the plan. Evidence was two packed meeting rooms in November — one in Franklin and the other in Asheville — of citizens willing to participate and provide feedback about the future of river and land protection in the national forests.
One of those attending, Kim Altman, came to the Asheville meeting to advocate for protection of rivers she loves to paddle.
“You kind of assume that everyone shares your views about wilderness,” said Altman who was surprised to learn at the gathering that land protection is a tricky topic in Western North Carolina.
For Altman and others, the discussion of wilderness and the forest planning process may be a prism to better understand the deep economic, cultural and environmental significance of the region’s 1.1 million acres of public national forest spanning 18 western counties.
Mary Kelly, who lives near the Big Bald area in Madison County which is one of the 52 areas inventoried as potential wilderness, may appreciate the gravity of public land discussions better than any of people, about 130, who attended the Nov. 16 meeting at UNC Asheville’s Kimmel Arena.
“The areas presented here (at the public meetings) represent the wildest places left,” Kelly said.
“Yes we need more wilderness in the East, but I’m conflicted. Some of the National Forest land came from the families that live here. It’s their dearly beloved backyard and not everyone has the same perspective about how land should be protected.”
Kelly, formerly the director of the Western North Carolina Alliance (now MountainTrue) was deeply involved in the last plan revision that currently govern the mountain’s two national forests — Pisgah and Nantahala — which was last revised in 1994.
The forest planning process, today and then, is guided by the National Forest Management Act of 1976 that dictates that the Forest Service must listen to a wide range of stakeholders and users while applying the best science available.
Kelly was part of a grassroots efforts over two decades ago that led to an appeal and a major overhaul of the region’s first long range forest plan. Forest defenders responded to what they believed was a wrong-headed plan calling for widespread clear-cutting and mineral exploration. The resulting plan, finalized in 1994, experts say, 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.
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. The Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest plan is among eight national forests that were selected as the first forests to implement the new planning rule.
“We’re really breaking ground for how we take all of the planning directives and figure out how to make something meaningful,” Melonas said.
“We’re laying down the track as we go.”
So perhaps it’s inevitable that there have been missteps along the way, such as a round of six public meetings in the fall of 2014 that generated tension due to a proposal of draft desired conditions for 16 forest-wide management areas.
Recently, the Forest Service has supported a series of behind-the-scenes meetings known as the Stakeholders Forum to bring together leaders of various interests that represent a broad range of forest constituencies to the table.
“I think the Forum is a positive force,” said Gordon Warburton of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and participant of the Stakeholders Forum. “We are all listening to each other. That’s progress.”
Melonas also thinks the Forest Service has done a better job of explaining the big picture of the forest plan revision process to the public which has helped foster a tone of collaboration as opposed to confrontation.
“We’ve provided a lot more context as to where we are and how folks can participate in the process in a productive way,” he said.
Josh Kelly, a biologist with MountainTrue and participant of the Stakeholder’s Forum said the forest service leadership has done a lot of work to “bring people in and help all constituents feel that they have an equal seat at the table.”
But Kelly said that the overall revision process is “so long and technical that it’s difficult to communicate to the public.”
In all, the revision process will take roughly five years from its launch in November, 2012 to the scheduled final management decisions in the fall of 2017.
John Culclasure, who represents the Ruffed Grouse Society in the Stakeholders Forum, said that the meetings have been a “terrific opportunity to build relationships among groups with stark differences about forest management,” but agrees that the public process of forest planning is “cumbersome for the average member of the public who doesn’t spend a lot of time reading forest service planning documents.”
While the tone among those deeply involved in the process appears collaborative, there’s still plenty of tension, particularly around wilderness designation.
On November 12, the Graham County board of commissioners hosted a hearing to respond to the wilderness inventory and evaluation process. Members of the commission and those who attended voiced their opposition to the possibility of any additions to the wilderness base. In Graham County, 58.8 percent of the land base, representing more than 115,000 acres, is national forest, the highest percentage of any county in Western North Carolina.
“I don’t want any more wilderness and I think I speak for most everybody in this room,” said Andy Cable, the county’s economic development director.
“I don’t mind the kayakers, don’t mind the hikers,” said Commissioner Raymond Williams at the meeting, which two Forest Service employees also attended.
“But we don’t need any more wilderness in Graham County. One of these days they’re going to put a buffer zone around (us) and Graham County is going to be gone.”
Following that meeting, commissioner voted unanimously on Nov. 17 to approve a nonbinding resolution calling for no additional wilderness or wild and scenic river designations. The county also passed a resolution opposing additions to wilderness in 2013.
Those resolutions, said the Forest Service, do not overrule the federally mandated revision process.
But what the Forest Service will be watching is the feedback it receives through its comment process. To that end, Graham commissioners were set to host another session at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 3, at the Graham County Community Building in Robbinsville. They planned to fill out comment sheets for the Forest Service and assist members of the public in submitting their comments.
Josh Kelly thinks the county resolutions are meaningful and a sign of how significant the political obstacles to wilderness designation are in Western North Carolina.
There are likely national political barriers to wilderness designation as well. U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows expressed his support of the Graham County resolution in a letter to the county’s commissioners dated November 12.
In his letter, the Cashiers Republican wrote that while he is a proponent of federal land preservation, “increasing wilderness designations on Forest Service lands is a misguided approach to conservation that is harmful to Western North Carolina.”
View/search document collection
Charlene Hogue of Bryson City who attended the Franklin meeting told CPP that she disapproves of any additions to the wilderness base.
“The national forests are supposed to be multiple-use,” said Hogue, founder of the Freedom and Land Rights Coalition.
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.
“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.”
No decision yet
The Forest Service said the wilderness and wild and scenic river inventory is just a step in the process and no decisions have been made about how to manage the land.
A recommendation on whether any given parcel should actually receive special conservation status will come in the spring when the Forest Service releases its DEIS, laying out a variety of alternatives, that will likely include an array of recommendations for wilderness and wild and scenic river status.
Yet the path to the nation’s highest level of land protection is long and complex, ultimately requiring an act of Congress and the signature of the president.
Kevin Colburn of American Whitewater who attended both public November meetings, said the questions posed to the Forest Service during a question and answer session in Franklin were delivered “somewhat confrontationally”, but he said, “were valid.”
“The questions people are asking are really smart and demonstrate they understand the process,” Colburn said.
“It’s the way it’s supposed to work. It’s the right kind of dialogue to be having even if people are on edge.”
And that’s just it, said Warburton of the Wildlife Commission, the purpose and spirit of the forest plan revision is to engage the public, find common ground, and make compromises.
“We’re putting all of the pieces of the puzzles on the table,” Warburton said. “We’re here to talk and have these conversations.”
Will Harlan, who lives in the Big Ivy community of northern Buncombe County and is co-organizer of the Friends of Big Ivy, attended the meeting in Asheville and hopes to see the Big Ivy, a 3,600 acre area of the Pisgah National Forest, protected from timber harvesting, paints a different picture from Hogue’s assessment of the relationship between “traditional” users of the forest and “environmentalists.”
“I thought there would be tension in Big Ivy, but there’s a lot of overlap,” he said.
“Most folks share a common vision. (Traditional users) of the forest have been our lead voices. The locals who have been using the forest for generations know the forest better than anyone also and want their water and their views protected, too. There’s a lot more common ground than there are differences.”
For the time being, the Forest Service will sort through the feedback of those who chimed in and decide which areas and rivers to presented to the public in a range of possible alternatives next spring, likely followed by more public meetings.
“It’s a long process so it’s probably not worth getting your blood pressure to high over the wild and scenic and wilderness evaluation,” Josh Kelly said. “If you are passionate about either side of the issue be prepared to stay involved.”
Input on the wilderness and wild and scenic river evaluation can be submitted by December 15 electronically to NCplanrevision@fs.fed.us with the subject line “wilderness evaluation input” or via postal mail to ATTN Forest Plan Revision, 160A Zillicoa Rd, Asheville, NC 28806.
Criteria for evaluation
What criteria are used to determine whether land is suitable for inclusion in the Wilderness Preservation System?
- Apparent Naturalness: The degree to which an area appears to be affected primarily by the forces of nature with the imprints of man’s work substantially unnoticed.
- Opportunities for solitude or for a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.
- Size. Whether an area of less than 5,000 acres is of sufficient size to make its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition practical.
- Unique and outstanding qualities. The degree to which an area may contain geological, ecological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historic value.
- Management. The degree to which the area may be managed to preserve its wilderness characteristics, considering shape, configuration, legally established rights of users, presence and amount of non-federal land, and management of adjacent lands.