The golden-winged warbler is one of the residents of Western North Carolina's national forests. Courtesy of Curtis Smalling.

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Revising the management plan for the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests has been a long process over several years that will take a few more months to complete.

For the plan’s many contributors, the significance of what the plan will mean makes it worth this prolonged effort.

A portion of Curtis Smalling’s job as director of conservation at Audubon North Carolina is to provide science-based expertise about protecting birds and their habitat to public land managers, which is why he’s participating in the multi-year revision process for Western North Carolina’s national forests.

Among the four national forest units in North Carolina, the two western forests — Pisgah National Forest and Nantahala National Forest — are guided by a single land-management plan. Federal law requires a revision of the management plan every 15 years. The current plan revision process began in November 2012 and will eventually replace the existing plan, which Congress approved in 1994.

While Smalling concentrates on improving habitat conditions for specific species, such as the golden-winged warbler and the yellow-bellied sapsuckers, he’s also taking an expansive view of the overall health of the 1.1 million acres of national forests in Western North Carolina.

Curtis Smalling

“We have some of the largest blocks of intact forest in the East. The forest plan is an opportunity to have one plan and one vision at a broad landscape level,” said Smalling who points out that the patchwork of public forest land in Western North Carolina is intermixed with rural communities, private land holdings, state owned land, and national park units.

“I think we tend to see our forests as a closed monolithic system, but we really need to look at what’s happening inside and outside of the forest boundaries.”

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After all, he said, birds have no regard for lines drawn on maps.

Planning process

U.S. Forest Service planners are also hoping to emphasize that forest advocates and users take a large landscape approach in the final stretch of the plan revision process that has, at times, been dogged by controversy over specific policies, such as wilderness and other federal land designations.

“Wilderness is a piece of that equation, but at this point in the process it’s really important to step back and look at the forest landscape as a whole and to see how all of the pieces are working together,” USFS planning officer Michelle Aldridge said.

Last summer the Forest Service publicly presented 23 topics that Aldridge refers to as the “building blocks” of the eventual forest plan, including sections on air, fire, rare habitats and other specific resources within the forests.

The agency also released an updated wilderness inventory and wilderness evaluation of federal forest land that may be suitable for recommendation to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

After releasing that information, the Forest Service conducted six public meetings in September and October to share details and solicit feedback. In addition, Aldridge said, they’ve gathered thousands of comments at open-house meeting, from emails and from conversations.

Based on that feedback, this summer the Forest Service will present an additional analysis of the national forests through the identification of 12 geographic areas that attempt to recognize the unique uses and values on U.S. national forest land throughout the region.

“The input we were getting from the public was that there are places and uses in the forest that are special to people that were hard for us to recognize,” Aldridge explained, “whether it’s an incredible recreation area, a source of drinking water or a place that people are dependent on gathering forest products essential for their livelihood.”

The “geographic area” section will contain information about unique locations across the forest. For example, a snapshot of the approach on the revision website includes the Nantahala Gorge, Highland Domes, and the Eastern Escarpment.

New federal guidelines, known as the 2012 planning rule, shortened the planning process to 3-4 years. However, this November will mark the fifth anniversary of the plan start. North Carolina is one of several states that are early adopters of the new planning rules. In addition, historic fires last year diverted forest personnel from planning duties.

Current National Forests of North Carolina supervisor, Allen Nicholas, will take a more hands-on role in the planning process in the absence of former assistant supervisor James Melonas, whom the Forest Service recently promoted to another national forest.

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Smalling praised Melonas’ work in the planning process and his role working with members of the Stakeholders Forum for the Nantahala and Pisgah Plan Revision. Facilitated by the National Forests Foundation, the body of roughly 40 volunteers has engaged in a collaborative process designed to address areas of conflicts among forest users and advocates.

“I credit him with a lot of the leadership on getting us as far as we’ve gotten,” Smalling said.

The Stakeholders Forum will reconvene this June to review the geographic area construct and provide feedback. The public will also have an opportunity to review the most recent work of forest planners.

Later this summer, Aldridge said another round of public meetings throughout the region is planned to explain and share information about the geographic areas and allow the public to better understand how the plan is assembled.

“Our intent is to get strong public input,” she said. “Ultimately, this is the plan for the national forests that serve the American people. It’s important to know that we’re still evolving and adjusting based on feedback. We’re trying to recognize uses and values of places that are really important to folks, but we are also trying to stay at the strategic level.”

Looking ahead, Aldridge anticipates that the Forest Service will release draft management plan alternatives in spring 2018, along with a draft environmental impact statement, followed by a public comment period. The forest supervisor will ultimately make the final management plan decision.

Jack Igelman

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

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