Unusual shapes and forms are typical in old-growth forests, such as the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, in Graham County. Photo by Mike Belleme
Unusual shapes and forms are typical in old-growth forests. Trees shaped like this one, found in Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, in Graham County, often started life growing on a large, downed log, or "nurse log," which has since decayed. The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is celebrating the 75th anniversary of its dedication this year. Photo by Mike Belleme

The path to wilderness goes through Congress. The trail may not be smooth.

Next year, the U.S. Forest Service may take action on recommending that new acreage within Western North Carolina’s two national forests be added to the National Wilderness Preservation System as part of the ongoing Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest management plan revision process slated to be finalized in 2017.

Whatever the Forest Service recommends, approval will depend on congressional action. The positions of the House and Senate members who represent potential wilderness areas can be expect to have a substantial effect on the outcome of the political process.

Looking at past wilderness efforts can offer some idea of the political gauntlet that the forthcoming set of wilderness recommendations could have to navigate in order to win passage.

This story is a special report by Carolina Public PRess
Click to view all stories in our Forest Lookouts series about the remanagement plans for Pisgah and Nantahala national forests.

Ballenger’s efforts

In 1992, Hickory Congressman Cass Ballenger proclaimed that two tracts of land amounting to nearly 13,000 acres in Western North Carolina warranted “protection for generations to come.”

Those words came during his unsuccessful bid to pass legislation to assign federal wilderness designation — the highest level of land protection in the U.S. — to the Harper Creek and Lost Cove wilderness study areas in the Pisgah National Forest below the summit of Grandfather Mountain.

Identical to two previous attempts at legislation in 1990 and 1991, the bill flew through the House, but fizzled before reaching a vote in the Senate.

Ballenger’s proposal was as close as any acreage have come in North Carolina to wilderness designation since 1984 when five areas totaling 68,700 acres were designated as wilderness and 25,816 acres were established as wilderness study areas (WSA), include Lost Cove and Harper Creek, by the North Carolina Wilderness Act of 1984.

While WSAs are required to be managed as wilderness, it would take additional legislation to make them wilderness or remove the WSA designation.

Political timing

Discussions of wilderness protection have typically been blustery in the North Carolina mountains, but a confluence of local anti-wilderness sentiment and conservative national politics may sway management of the state’s wildest places in the near future.

“It does feel like the politics have changed in Western North Carolina, and not just around wilderness,” said Matt Wasson of Appalachian Voices based in Boone. “The strength of anti-government sentiment is strong across the country, particularly in rural areas of Western North Carolina.”

Although environmental policy issues are often partisan, the politics of wilderness designation haven’t always been drawn along party lines.

Ballenger, who died in 2015, was a conservative Republican who was an ally of conservationists, spearheading the effort to designate Wilson Creek as a component of the National Wild and Scenic River system in 2000. And the last additions to wilderness in North Carolina were signed into law by President Ronald Reagan with support from conservative U.S. Senator Jesse Helms.

Presently, there is just one wilderness proposal in Congress. If passed, the proposed wilderness legislation would designate nearly 20,000 acres of wilderness in the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee. That bill was written by the state’s two U.S. senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, both Republicans.

However, in North Carolina, the politics of wilderness may be slightly less cordial. Anti-wilderness resolutions passed in 12 counties, while non-binding, have captured the attention of U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows.

The Forest Service released four proposed alternatives in July for the future of wilderness acreage. Among the alternatives is the status quo, which would maintain the wilderness recommendations of the current plan formed in 1994. Another possible alternative would recommend more than 60,000 acres for wilderness.

Meadows’ turf

While the Forest Service’s recommendation is meaningful, Brent Martin of the Wilderness Society said the next step is support from Congress.

“The legislation can came from either chamber, but generally they won’t pass without the support of the local Congressman,” said Martin.

The backing would have to come from Meadows if he retains his seat in the election this November. Since the redistricting of Congress in 2010, virtually all of the current and potential wilderness additions outlined by the Forest Service this past summer are within N.C.’s 11th Congressional district.

In a statement, Meadows told CPP that it would be premature to weigh in on any proposed legislation.

“My continued emphasis would be on active forest management and greater access for recreational use,” Meadows said.

Meadows’ Democratic opponent in this year’s election, Rick Bryson of Swain County, acknowledged that in Western North Carolina wilderness designation is a tricky topic. He said that adding wilderness is the strongest choice from an “environmental standpoint,” but he stopped short of supporting additions to the wilderness base.

“In counties where a significant portion of the acreage is under federal management, people feel as though they are constrained from access to what once was their own territory,” Bryson said. “In the prevailing atmosphere, I don’t believe that an increase in wilderness acreage is acceptable.”

Indeed, with tensions at a boil in North Carolina surrounding wilderness, Wasson of Appalachian Voices said that gaining Meadows’ support of wilderness legislation, while not impossible, doesn’t seem likely, at least for now.

“I think you’re going to get a very knee-jerk reaction to more government. I don’t think that would surprise anyone,” Wasson said. “But these forest plans last a long time — from 15 to 20 years. So when I think about the value of the Forest Service’s recommendation, I’m not thinking about whether it will move Mark Meadows. Maybe the politics he is responding to changes or perhaps the seat changes.”

On Aug. 30, Meadows organized a “listening session” with county leaders in Macon County. The National Forests of North Carolina forest supervisor, members of the planning team and district staff were present. The meeting was not open to the public.

“I have been actively working with stakeholders to make the most informed decisions on the proposed wilderness plan. Currently, the overwhelming majority of county officials have expressed great concerns with some of the proposed [wilderness] additions to the plans,” said Meadows in a statement.

“I support additional funding for the U.S. Forest Service as long as both ranger districts plan to use those resources to manage the forest and provide greater access for recreational use.”

Wilderness support

Deputy Supervisor James Melonas of the National Forests in North Carolina said that for any special land designation to move forward, it must first have wide support from National Forest stakeholders and users.

“My experience in which there has been successful designation is when you have a broad coalition of various interest groups that are willing to live with or are supportive of the areas,” Melonas said in July.

But building consensus around wilderness designation has been slippery in light of the anti-wilderness resolutions passed throughout the region. Just one town, Franklin in Macon County, has passed a resolution supporting additions to wilderness. Still, resolutions aside, Wasson isn’t sure the national political climate and the makeup of Congress is favorable to wilderness.

“I don’t think that Meadows would respond to a broad consensus of support,” said Wasson. “I’m not sure the old maxim — that all politics is local — holds here. I think he’s also responding to national, anti-regulatory sentiments.”

Still, Wasson said the Forest Service’s possible recommendations included in the future forest plan will be meaningful and that working towards support now, worthwhile.

“I don’t think that building consensus is a waste of time,” Wasson said. “If you are going to imagine local consensus it will have to start with the wildlife groups. They’re going to have to be on board. Without them, it’s not going to happen.”

Sportsmen have been outspoken critics of wilderness designation during the forest plan revision process.

David Whitmire of Transylvania County and the chair of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council, an assembly of Western North Carolina hunters, said that they do not support additional wilderness acreage that limit active management for the benefit of wildlife habitat. However, he added that sportsmen would support wilderness designation if there was local buy-in.

“Sportsmen are not the only cog in the wheel,” Whitmire said. “If you force wilderness designation and don’t have local buy-in it will take years to heal those wounds.”

But Martin of the Wilderness Society is concerned that the county resolutions have driven a wedge in the planning process.

“It’s unfortunate that county officials have passed these resolutions without due public process, and with the support of only a very vocal handful of special interests.  North Carolina’s National Forests belong to everyone, and our local officials should support an open process,” Martin said.

“Many different people are at the table and a lot of different people have interest in these forest plans.”

Whitmire said that if people are opposed to the resolution passed in his home county, they have been silent.

“I can’t speak for other counties, but there has been no pushback whatsoever from people here,” he said.

Open houses

The Forest Service has scheduled open houses at all six Nantahala and Pisgah district offices in September and October.

These drop-by events will allow members of the public to visit their local district for informal discussions on the developing forest plan as well as other activities happening at the district.

  • Sept. 15, 3-6 p.m., Nantahala Ranger District Office, 90 Sloan Road, Franklin
  • Sept. 22, 3-6 p.m., Cheoah Ranger District Office, 1070 Massey Branch Road, Robbinsville
  • Sept. 27, 3-6 p.m., Tusquitee Ranger District Office, 123 Woodland Drive, Murphy
  • Oct. 6, 3-6 p.m., Grandfather Ranger District, 109 Lawing Drive, Nebo
  • Oct. 12, 3-6 p.m., Pisgah Ranger District Office, 1600 Pisgah Highway, Brevard
  • Oct. 13, 3-6 p.m., Appalachian Ranger District Office, 632 Manor Road, Mars Hill

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

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