A new chief forester is taking the helm of the office that oversees North Carolina’s national forests, even as the agency’s plan for those forests undergoes a major revision process.
Allen Nicholas, a 30-year veteran of the USFS, will report to duty Feb. 22 after a 12-year stint at the Shawnee National Forest where he most recently served as supervisor of the 286,000-acre forest in Southern Illinois.
“I love to hike, I’m a fly fisherman, I hunt,” Nicholas said. “The varied ecology of the forest in North Carolina and the whole outdoor piece of this job is really exciting to me.”
North Carolina is home to four national forests — Croatan, Uwharrie, Pisgah and Nantahala — that encompass 1.25 million acres and host more than 7 million visitors annually.
He’s also eager, he said, to dive into the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest plan revision process.
Indeed, Nicholas will be jumping into the hot seat as the revision process continues to churn forward, sometimes in a heated manner.
“The planning process is one of the reasons that I am excited about being in North Carolina,” Nicholas said.
“I fully intend on being a fly on the wall and going to the meetings and listening. I enjoy conversations, I enjoy meeting people and so I’m going to be in absorption mode to try to wrap my head around all these varying pieces.”
In 2006, the Shawnee National Forest revised its forest plan.
While Nicholas is familiar with forest planning, he’ll have to brush up on recent revisions in the policies that dictate how national forests conduct the plan revision process.
The Pisgah-Nantahala plan is structured by this new set of guidelines, known as the 2012 planning rule, which requires more participation from the public.
Under the previous planning guidelines, forest supervisors recommended a final plan to a regional forester. James Melonas, the acting forest supervisor of North Carolina, said under the new guidelines the forest supervisor will sign the plan, although the regional forester can conduct a post-decision review if members of the public voice objections.
This spring the forest service expects to unveil the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the next major milestone in the revision process. The DEIS will present a range of management alternatives to the public, including recommendations for special land designations, such as wild and scenic rivers and wilderness.
Those are topics on which not everyone agrees in Western North Carolina.
“That people might have differences of opinions is not unhealthy,” Nicholas said. “I just see that as passion in people who feel very strongly about resources and what they value.”
Nicholas said he has experience with working collaborative groups, such as the Pisgah-Nantahala “stakeholders forum” that meets monthly to find consensus around testy planning issues.
“The planning process is a very in depth and diverse conversation,” he said.
“Yes, you are going to have varying opinions, varying values, conflicting use need. But that’s why the collaborative process is so valuable. So that we can get in a room we can talk about it. The communication is so integral to understand all the varying desires and collaboratively get us to an end game.”