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James Melonas, deputy supervisor of the National Forests in North Carolina (NFsNC) office addressed a crowd of Forest Service colleagues at an April national training in Denver to share his thoughts on the ongoing Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests plan revision effort in Western North Carolina.
His message: be transparent and build trust.
“Really focusing on relationships and engaging folks as early as possibly well before the revision starts is critical,” Melonas said.
Melonas hopes his office’s approach to both will pay off as his agency prepares to release two vital documents in the multiyear planning process:
- the draft revised forest plan
- the draft environmental impact statement.
A national forest management plan provides a general framework to guide a forest in managing its resources for the next two decades. The environmental impact statement estimates the cumulative environmental impacts that may result from the proposed draft forest plan.
Michelle Aldridge, planning staff officer and forest planner of NFsNC, told Carolina Public Press that the Forest Service has been sharing building blocks of the plan and will continue to unveil pieces of the draft revised forest plan throughout the summer. The agency will present the complete draft plan to the public in late autumn.
“The theory is to keep sharing the ideas we’ve heard so people are able to see that we’re incorporating them into the (draft) plan,” she said.
As for now, Aldridge said Forest Service staff members remain focused on developing and fine-tuning various aspects of the draft. A 90-day comment period will follow that includes public meetings at multiple locations throughout Western North Carolina will follow the fall release.
“We’re trying … to be more deliberative; to take more time up front so it’s a smoother process between draft and final,” she said.
One significant portion of the draft plan that the agency has presented includes desired conditions, standards and management approaches for forest-wide components, such as rare habitats. The desired conditions represent “big picture goals” for managing more than a million acres of WNC national forests.
The Forest Service will soon post specific, measurable actions to meet those desired conditions, Aldridge said.
In the meantime, the public can get involved by observing Nantahala Pisgah Forest Plan Revision Interdisciplinary team meetings that address a wide range of planning topics. These take place two to four times monthly depending on need.
The Pisgah-Nantahala Stakeholders Forum has also been meeting since last fall on a monthly basis. Facilitated by the National Forest Foundation and funded by the Forest Service, the Forum’s goal is to build agreement in several areas, including “forest-wide plan components and desired conditions”: “management areas”; and “the location of special areas and management activities”. The Stakeholders Forum has provided input to the Forest Service on a range of forest-wide issues so far.
Mark Shelley of the NFF told CPP that while the Stakeholders Forum didn’t reach consensus on some key issues, members established a level of trust that may have been absent a year ago.
“We moved the dial, but we didn’t want to try and force consensus that wasn’t really there,” Shelley said. “I don’t think it’s realistic to eliminate conflict entirely, but people were in a comfortable enough environment to openly critique each other. If you go back six to nine months, you didn’t have that. People weren’t talking.”
After meeting May 10, the Forum will break over the summer. Shelley said the members intend to convene again before the release of the draft plan.
While Shelley said he hopes the Forum will continue, he’s believes the NFF’s effort will complement other collaborative groups that have formed, such as WNC Wildlife and the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership.
Although the Forum may not have provided consensus recommendations, Melonas told CPP that the work of the Stakeholders Forum has been meaningful to planners.
While there are key issues with a range of different opinions, he said, people also agree on plenty of forest-wide issues, such as addressing invasive insects and addressing water quality.
“What’s helpful is finding out the key issues groups agree on,” Melonas said. “That allows us to spend more time on issues where there are differing opinions and dig into those a bit further.”
Aldridge said the Stakeholders recommendation will have value since it represents agreement on issues from a diverse range of interests. Some of the recommendations and ideas generated by the Forum may have an influence on aspects of the plan, she said.
Alternatives and evaluation
The draft plan will present several management alternatives to the public and the draft EIS will evaluate the impact of each alternative and present the possible tradeoffs of each alternative.
Historically, it hasn’t been uncommon to have up to 10 management alternatives, Aldridge said, often each alternative specifically focused on serving a specific resource issue.
This time, she said, forest planners are focused on presenting fewer alternatives where multiple resources — wildlife, recreation, water quality and others — “have a win in each alternative” rather than each alternative best serving a specific forest resource.
That balance is tricky in North Carolina where the ecology of the forest is especially complex relative to other U.S. National Forests and where the public interest is strong.
To add to that, North Carolina planners were navigating a new set of complex planning guidelines unveiled in 2012. Those new planning rules reduced the planning time frame and the funding.
“One lesson learned is to not start a plan revision when the planning directives are in the midst of being established,” Paul Arndt, the Regional Planner for the Southern Region of the USNF based in Atlanta, told CPP. “The Nantahala-Pisgah was caught in the middle of trying to proceed forward while the ‘rules of the game’ were being developed and were changing,”
Arndt added that reducing the time and cost of plan revision will allow the Forest Service to update more plans using the same amount of resources and keep more plans current.
Eyes on North Carolina
“Forest Service folks from different parts of the country are really interested in what we are doing in North Carolina,” Melonas said. “Not just in terms of the technical work, but more importantly the collaborative work we’re doing.”
Aldridge added that morale is high among the agency’s planning team.
“This is an important process,” she said. “We’re charting the course of the forest for the next generation. There’s a lot of enthusiasm for getting it right.”