A scene in the Pisgah National Forest. Jack Igelman/Carolina Public Press.

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No topic within the National Forest plan revision process has stirred up as much passion as wilderness designation.

The National Forests of North Carolina office has begun unveiling the building blocks of its draft Pisgah-Nantahala Forest Resource Management Plan over the past several weeks.

The Forest Service has released 34 forest management objectives and 23 sections of the draft plan through July 26.

Click to view all stories about the remanagement plans for Pisgah and Nantahala national forests.

The Forest Service took a step closer to making recommendations for the National Wilderness System on Tuesday with the release of four possible wilderness alternatives and a more than 250-page narrative that explains the evaluation results of 53 land areas in the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests inventoried for wilderness and presented to the public for comment last November.

In all, the wilderness inventory included 364,000 acres in Western North Carolina’s two national forests.

James Melonas, the deputy supervisor of the National Forests of North Carolina, told Carolina Public Press that the wilderness evaluation is the second of four steps in the process of identifying and potentially recommending additions to the National Wilderness System. These steps are a requirement of the federal forest’s replanning process.

“This is an initial take on a possible range of alternatives, but as we move through the process there may be a better way to package them,” Melonas said.

“This is an issue that’s polarizing. I wouldn’t expect everyone will be fully satisfied with the alternatives, but the spirit is to put it out there and to continue to be transparent.”

Ultimately, Congress has authority to make final decisions on designations.

Based on public feedback and expert analysis, the evaluation narrows down the list of potential additions to the wilderness base laid out in the inventory last November.

Six wilderness areas currently exist in Western North Carolina along with five study areas.

The U.S. Forest Service has issued four alternative proposals for Western North Carolina national forests, two of which are identical on wilderness acreage because they embrace the status quo. This graph shows how the components in each proposal stack up in terms of total acreage. (Graphic by Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press)

Alternatives

The evaluation includes four proposed alternatives for the future of wilderness acreage. Alternative A proposes “no action” and maintains the existing five wilderness study areas, three of which have previously been recommended for wilderness by the Forest Service.

Michelle Aldridge, a planning staff officer with the Forest Service, told CPP that Alternative A would make no changes to any aspect of the overall management plan.

“We included Alternative A in our analysis since we have the choice to continue our current management plan,” she said. While the option is unlikely to be selected, Aldridge said, it allows the public to compare other alternatives to the status quo, which includes 66,337 acres of designated wilderness, 22,097 acres in wilderness study areas and 15,321 acres that have previously been recommended for wilderness designation, but zero additional acres under analysis for wilderness.

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Alternative B would not add any wilderness area recommendations, but would increase the acreage of wilderness by expanding four currently designated wilderness areas and recommending four Wilderness Study Areas for wilderness. The plan would expand the wilderness study areas recommended for wilderness to 23,773 acres and analyze an additional 14,457 acres for wilderness.

Alternative C includes the same additions to existing wilderness as Alternative B, but also proposes four new areas for analysis as possible recommendations for wilderness, expanding that acreage to 63,285.

While Alternative D, like A, mirrors the current plan on the topic of wilderness recommendations, Aldridge said it is was designed to be responsive to members of the public who expressed a desire for no new recommendations, regardless of other innovations to the overall plan for the national forests. Each plan, other than the status quo represented by A, will have elements added to address issues besides just acreage, which is why a separate Alternative D exists.

“Alternative D will eventually look different from the current plan expressed in Alternative A,” Aldridge said. Ultimately, Alternative D will differ from the current plan once it incorporates public views and the best available science on a range of different forest uses and issues.

Reaction

Members of the Stakeholders Forum for the Pisgah and Nantahala Plan Revision, as well as representatives of county governments, had an opportunity to preview portions of the potential alternatives before these were released to the public. However, the stakeholders and representatives were not able to examine the information included in the evaluation narrative.

David Whitmire, a member of the Stakeholders Forum and chair of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council, an assembly of sportsmen from Western North Carolina, told CPP that he is satisfied with what the Forest Service has presented in the evaluation so far.

Hunters across the region are advocating for more habitat diversity in the National Forests in order to reverse declining populations of game, according to Whitemire. Hunters have expressed concern that special designations, such as wilderness, could restrict the agency’s ability to manage forests to accommodate a range of wildlife habitats.

“(The Forest Service) has tried to stay away from active wildlife management areas,” Whitmire said.

“I’m not opposed to additions to the wilderness base as long as there is local buy in and there’s ample time for discussions in local communities.”

But not everyone is satisfied with the potential alternatives presented in the evaluation.

“I think it is unbalanced right now,” said David Reid who is a member of the Stakeholders Forum and represents the North Carolina Chapter of the Sierra Club.

“Given the history of wilderness in Western North Carolina, I think the Forest Service is taking a very cautious approach at the expense of a strong wilderness alternative.”

Reid told CPP that wilderness advocates were hoping for a ballpark figure of roughly 100,000 acres of recommended wilderness.

In his opinion alternative C is the strongest wilderness choice, adding an additional 63,000 acres of new land recommended for wilderness. Even so, Reid said this plan still omitted several important areas.

Hugh Irwin, a landscape conservation planner for The Wilderness Society, expressed even more dissatisfaction with the range of proposals, calling them “inadequate and premature.”

“The public has not had a chance to comment on the evaluations that were just released,” Irwin said. “Only after the evaluation and public participation is complete can the (Forest Service) properly determine which areas to move forward into analysis.

“The alternatives proposed are not well-formed around any meaningful themes other than some alternatives have more wilderness and some have less. Alternatives should integrate all plan issues and themes including wilderness into alternatives that provide a reasonable range for all relevant issues.”

Asked about whether conservation advocates had been seeking a much greater increase in acreage, Irwin did not discuss quantities of land but confirmed that some desired additions to wilderness were not covered by the proposals.

“We are focused on the areas we think deserve wilderness recommendation — or at least adequate consideration for wilderness recommendation — through the planning process,” he said. “We feel that deserving areas and portions of areas are not included in any of the proposed alternatives.”

Melonas said the Forest Service is open to feedback.

“We want to give the public time to digest this information and to keep improving on this,” he said.

Lang Hornthal, a member of the Stakeholders Forum and the founder of Root Cause — a regional initiative to raise awareness of the local forest-products industry — applauded the Forest Service’s transparent approach to such a complex process. Hornthal wants to ensure that rural counties have access to timber and forest resources to support their local economies.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with the process. … The Forest Service has allowed the different groups to share their values and to continue to involve us in the process has served the public well,” he said.

Aldridge of the Forest Service added that while wilderness designation has drawn considerable interest in the plan revision process, she said her agency is “striving to propose a plan that addresses a wide range of uses and incorporate the different values of how public forest” management is viewed.

Going forward

The third step of the wilderness process will be analysis of the management alternatives that will be included in the release of the draft environmental impact statement scheduled to be released — along with the draft management plan — in spring 2017.

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The Forest Supervisor makes a final decision on which areas to recommend for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System in the final draft of the forest plan scheduled to be completed later next year.

Whether the recommendations are implemented is up to forest stakeholders and the Congressional delegation, Melonas said. Still, the Forest Service’s attempt to capture public input during the planning process may make a difference after the management plan is implemented.

“From my experience, successful land designations have happened when there is a broad coalition of various interest groups that are supportive of it,” he said. “I think we’ve established a solid foundation.”

Accepting comment

From the U.S. Forest Service: “While there is no formal NEPA or legal comment period, we are accepting input on the objectives via comments to NCplanrevision@fs.fed.us with the subject line “Wilderness Evaluations” or by mail at this address: Attn: Plan Revision Team Leader; National Forests in NC; 160 Zilicoa St. Suite A; Asheville, NC 28801. You will also have an opportunity to review and comment on our analysis when the draft EIS is released.”

Existing Wilderness

  • Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, 17,410 acres with 13,590 acres in Graham County and 3,820 acres in Tennessee
  • Ellicott Rock Wilderness, 8,274 acres with 3,394 acres in Jackson and Macon counties, 2,201 acres in Georgia and 2,859 acres in South Carolina
  • Southern Nantahala Wilderness, 23,473 acres with 11,703 acres in Clay and Macon counties and 11,770 acres in Georgia
  • Shining Rock Wilderness, 18,483 acres in Haywood County
  • Middle Prong Wilderness, 7,900 acres in Haywood County
  • Linville Gorge Wilderness, 11,786 acres in Burke County

In 1984, Congress designated five Wilderness Study Areas on the Forest

  • Craggy Wilderness Study Area
  • Harper’s Creek Wilderness Study Area
  • Lost Cove Wilderness Study Area
  • Overflow Creek Wilderness Study Area
  • Snowbird Wilderness Study Area

Jack Igelman

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

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