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If slimy creatures and creepy crawlers unnerve you, take heed: at least 40 species of freshwater crayfish, nearly 40 varieties of snakes and more than two dozen types of salamanders live in the Southern Appalachians. Add to that 900 species of flies, 2,500 kinds of beetles, and hundreds of other strange beings and you get a sense of just how expansive the web of life is inside one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America, according to the All Taxa Biodiversity project in the Smokies.

A unique confluence of climate, elevation, hydrology and geography has created in the Southern Appalachians one of the most biologically varied places on the planet. Managing this diversity of life is a central task of the public process of revamping the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest Land Management Plan.

Public foresters are required to use the best science available and gather public input to strengthen the habitat for thousands of species that dwell in western North Carolina forests — from freshwater mussels to elk.

While the ecology of the forest is complex and dynamic, so are the politics of how best to manage the forests and for which species.

In this article, Carolina Public Press examines views of how best to manage the wildlife and their habitat within the 1.04 million acres of Western North Carolina’s national forests.

The lengthy public process has also demonstrated that while wildlife conservation experts and forest service planners are approaching forest management on a scale that transcend county borders, its sluggish progress has proven that local politics matter.

In one important case, the appearance that a state employee took an active role in support of a specific agenda has led to controversy and may have complicated the already precarious political landscape surrounding the new forest plan.

Public lands in a broader landscape

This story is a part of our ongoing “Forest Lookouts” special report, on the future of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. Click to view more from the series.

“Much of the best habitat that remains are on public lands,” said Ben Prater of Defenders of Wildlife, a nonprofit organization advocating for protection of imperiled wildlife. “That means the onus of providing habitat and restoring populations of wildlife is one of the main charges of the management plan.”

Historically, public forest land ownership in the Eastern United States was largely determined by acquisition opportunities that began with the first national forest purchase in North Carolina in 1916. The result: numerous small towns, roads, infrastructure and communities are within and surrounded by national forest.

If you drew a circle around the domain of national forest in WNC, more than half is in private hands. That’s meant that the communities and the people of WNC have had a close economic, political and cultural relationship with the national forest.

That’s one reason that national forest managers are taking a “landscape” scale view to manage the region’s federal forests. For one, making strategic management decisions at a large scale is mandated by federal guidelines – known as the 2012 planning rule – rather than managing the details of specific national forest projects, such as a timber harvest or restoration project.

“The planning rule asks us to look at the role of the national forest within the broader landscape. That we don’t just look inward, that we look at the entire context of the land,” forest service planner Michelle Aldridge said.

“We want to show folks – and be able to clarify – how we are thinking about the activities that are outside our boundaries too.”

Earlier this year, the Forest Service released a new chapter of the draft forest plan that divides the forest into 12 geographic areas that each encompass tens of thousands of acres of land. The areas cross ranger districts and county boundaries, and are distinguished by landscape features that represent the unique identity of specific areas of the forest. Each geographic area is defined by its dominant landscape characteristic, forest type and land use.

For example, the Bald Mountains geographic area has a 20-mile stretch highlighted by treeless mountain tops, including Roan Mountain. In late June and July, the forest service will conduct public meetings throughout the region to explain the geographic areas and seek feedback (dates to be released next week).

“The geographic areas help us manage where we focus our ecological work. It helps us to think in smaller chunks of land than across the entire region,” Aldridge explained.

But taking a landscape scale perspective of the forest is also a practice adopted by land managers who advocate for habitat and wildlife management at a relatively large scale.

Wildlife biologist Adam Warwick and program director Megan Sutton of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) favor managing the forest on a landscape scale as a sensible approach to ensure a mosaic of disturbances and habitat types across the entire forest and to make sure it’s distributed according to the best science available.

TNC often approaches complex land conservation and restoration projects that include a combination of private and public landowners throughout the Southern Appalachians.

Sutton, who is an active participant in the forest plan revision process, said that the reintroduction of a herd of elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an example of why managing their habitat at a landscape scale is sensible. Since their reintroduction in 2001 to the Cataloochee Valley, the herd has expanded their footprint and spread onto private and national forest land.

“Elk move along corridors and into areas with good habitat regardless of the ownership,” she said.

Prater of Defenders of Wildlife is also a proponent of a landscape scale approach in forest planning. “To achieve a habitat management goal, you can’t just look at 100 acres,” he said.

“So much of our forests are fragmented that we need to have a holistic approach; at the landscape level you’re looking at how populations interact; their ability to establish new territories; or adapt to climate change.”

There’s a human side to landscape scale planning too, Warwick said.

“Each ranger district of the national forest not only has a different ecology, but people throughout WNC have different values about how the land should be used,” he said.

“Anytime you apply a big blanket policy across 1 million acres you’re asking for trouble. Scale matters a lot. The scale impacts how you roll it out the public and how you talk about it.”

NCWRC: who they are and what they do

Land conservation organizations, such as TNC and Defenders of Wildlife, aren’t the only experts with a stake in how national forests and wildlife habitat are managed. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), established in 1947, is mandated by the N.C. General Assembly to “conserve and sustain the state’s fish and wildlife resources through research, scientific management, wise use and public input.”

North Carolina legislation designates wildlife as a public trust resource, putting game and nongame species are under the stewardship of the NCWRC regardless of the land ownership. In practice, the state agency has had a long history of advising and working with public land managers, including the USFS.

Kendrick Weeks, the NCWRC wildlife diversity supervisor for the Western region, which includes 12 western counties, oversees a small staff that surveys, monitors and conducts wildlife research, working toward the protection of species of greatest conservation need, with guidance from agency’s Wildlife Action Plan.

“Having diverse habitats within the forest can help prevent low populations of all wildlife,” Weeks said. “The key questions have always been: How much and where?

Professional wildlife biologists and other resource professionals can help determine management actions or restrictions, but there are many other interests that have to be considered in managing national forests so that every stakeholder gets a reasonable portion of the forest pie. That’s a tall order to fill which is why having everybody working from a similar blueprint is so important.”

The NCWRC has a seat at the table of the Stakeholders Forum for the Nantahala and Pisgah Forest Plan Revision, which is seeking to find consensus among various users and has participated in the Pisgah-Nantahala Forest Partnership.

They meet again on June 6 and 13 in Canton and will continue to advise the forest service throughout the plan revision.

But finding agreement of the best way to conserve wildlife is complicated even within the NCWRC due to the habitat requirement of a range of species they oversee.

In May 2015 the NCWRC formed a “forest plan workgroup” to develop a clear process for providing input from the agency to the forest plan.

“The main reason to form the work group was have a single voice that brought input from different voices on the commission working with different facets of wildlife – game and non-game, terrestrial and aquatic,” said Andrea Leslie, who is a member of the stakeholders forum and leads the NCWRC workgroup.

Among the tasks of the workgroup was to create a wilderness statement summary to provide to the USFS to clarify their position on wilderness.

According to emails CPP obtained through a public records request, Gordon Warburton, who was then NCWRC ecoregion supervisor, drafted the statement with input from members of the workgroup.

The controversial PowerPoint

Warburton, who recently retired from the NCWRC, has played an active role in the forest plan revision. He stirred controversy in April 2014 following a PowerPoint presentation shared with a volunteer sportsmen group with statements that opposed wilderness, known as the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council (FWCC).

That same month, the forest service released a first draft of an inventory of land suitable for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System that included 200,000 acres.

The FWCC is a group of hunting and fishing advocates who, according to their “need and value” statement, are seeking “diversity, health, habitat, and abundance” for fish and wildlife. The group formed in the mid-1990s and has become more active since the national forest management plan revision began in 2012.

The FWCC is a proponent of expanding active wildlife habitat management and restoration through, among other things, more timber harvesting and controlled fires. Central to their advocacy is forest restoration and increasing the amount of early successional habitat across the landscape, including grasses, shrubs and trees that provide food, cover and habitat for wildlife.

Examples of ESH include weedy areas, grasslands, old fields or pastures, shrub thicket and forest stands less than 20 years old.

Many conservation advocates disagree over whether promoting this specific sort of habitat over others is desirable on a large scale. They also question whether aggressive advocacy for ESH stems more from a desire to conserve species or to boost game numbers and accessibility for the benefit of sportsmen.

While Warburton indicated in an e-mail that his presentation was sent only to a small group, it was shared widely among wilderness advocates and other stakeholders, drawing their ire and concerns over Warburton’s influence as a public agency employee on a grassroots group of hunters and anglers.

Warburton has said that his role while an employee with the NCWRC was to help inform the FWCC’s concerns with science and data so that their positions have credibility.

The presentation included forceful statements opposing federal land designations, such as wilderness and criticized 41 areas identified by the Wilderness Society and known as “North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures.” For example, in the presentation a slide stated “WE have to stand opposed to all new wilderness” and “We need to be able to address each of the key Mountain Treasures areas — need sportsmen who can speak against these and rally locals against them”.

When interviewed by CPP in 2015, Warburton said he’s not against wilderness, but interested in more places where the forest can be managed for habitat diversity.

“Before we start adding more designations we want to know what can be managed for wildlife habitat,” he said. “We want folks to understand the connection between habitat and promoting a diversity of wildlife. We’d like to see the pendulum swing the other way.”

Indeed, controversy over elements of the forest plan revision, including a strategy to manage various forest habitats, has hinged on concerns over federal land designations, such as wilderness. Various land designations have a range of restrictions on land use. Wilderness, the highest form of land protection in the U.S. is among the most restrictive.

The FWCC has expressed concern that more federal land designation may inhibit the ability to manage forests to improve habitat. The group’s “need and value” statement states that there should be “verification and justification, clarity of reason for designation;” “all effects of current users, culture, history and economical impacts should be noted;” and designations “must have local community and county support.”

The group’s statement also says “sound science should be a guiding factor” in considering federal land designations.

Members of the FWCC have been present at county commission meetings where anti-wilderness resolutions have been on the agenda. Those resolutions, passed in a dozen counties, have been cited as justifications for proposals by U.S. Senator Thom Tillis and U.S. Congressman Mark Meadows that would impact how wilderness is designated in the Eastern U.S.

Tillis’ proposal would recommend county commissions have the ability to veto wilderness designations.

But this could be a case of the tail wagging the dog, because various counties have said Meadows encouraged them to pass resolutions.

David Whitmire, the chair of the FWCC said he understands that Warburton’s PowerPoint presentation caused heartburn among stakeholders, but Whitmire insists that, as an organization, the FWCC does not have an anti-wilderness agenda.

“We know that it’s not just about game and that public lands belong to all of us,” he said. Whitmire said he has not been involved with anti-wilderness resolution advocacy in any county except his own: Transylvania.

While the forest service and other experts are approaching land management at a scale that transcend county borders, Whitmire believes that counties are at the “essence of our communities and how we interact with our forests”. He said his organization is willing to back additions to the wilderness base, but only under the condition that the recommended designation receives a thumbs up from the local counties where the land lay.

While the NCWRC has provided expertise to the FWCC, Weeks said that he recognizes “that there are other values associated with wilderness” beyond wildlife or habitat goals. From a wildlife habitat perspective, he said that other land designations, such as “backcountry management areas” within the forest may allow more flexibility in managing habitat for a range of species.

Current NCWRC staff involved with the stakeholders, don’t necessarily see taking an advocacy for specific approaches to wilderness policy as an appropriate role.

“Wilderness is not our decision,” said Leslie of the NCWRC and stakeholder forum member. “That’s bigger than us. We’re not opposing or supporting any specific wilderness, we’re here to address our interests, which is wildlife conservation.”

That view is consistent with a NCWRC “summary statement on wilderness designation” obtained by CPP dated December 17, 2015:

“The wilderness designation does not afford any additional wildlife conservation benefits that could be provided by other management area designations.  The wilderness designation may actually present obstacles to certain wildlife* conservation and restoration needs.  Other options for low intensity management (example Backcountry) could provide for flexibility to manage based on conservation need, a changing environment and unforeseen future challenges.” The world “wildlife”  in the first sentence was not present originally and was added later.

“Backcountry management areas” are not a “Congressional” designation. Aldridge of the USFS said backcountry management areas represents one of three types of management areas and are at least 2,500 acre blocks of forest in relatively undisturbed condition.

Similar to Congressionally designated wilderness, motorized equipment is prohibited. However, limited management of forest resources is permitted in backcountry management areas. And unlike the permanent status of wilderness, the identification of backcountry extends only for the life of the forest plan, which is 15 to 20 years.

Access versus biology

Weeks points out that game species play a dual role in the forest: one, as sport for hunters, and two, to fulfil a biological need. Biologically speaking, for example, deer browse and graze which influences forest structure and composition and they provide food for predators. However, while a game species population may be large enough to satisfy its biological function, their numbers may not satisfy the needs of sportsmen.

Curtis Smalling, an ornithologist and director of conservation with Audubon North Carolina and a member of the Stakeholders Forum, is concerned that access issues and biological issues have become too co-mingled in the forest planning process.

“It’s a perfectly valid reason to be thinking about managing the forest for public access so that hunting can continue and be successful and accessible,” Smalling said.

“But I’m not sure that we need to take a public trust resource and manage it specifically for those species. We should be talking about hunting deer and turkey as an access issue, and habitat for golden winged warblers, green salamanders or whatever else as a biological issue.”

The FWCC believes that the future management of the National Forest should target a minimum of 12 percent of forest in an age class of 0-12 years. The need to improve game populations is a central argument of the FWCC and has been cited as a reason to oppose new additions to the wilderness base in several county resolutions.

Warwick of TNC said that historically speaking there’s strong evidence that there was a much greater distribution of young forest and more grassy areas across the landscape prior to the 20th century. However, fire suppression has been a primary factor in abetting forest growth that is now lacking in young forest age classes and creating a canopy that is too dense.

“Most of the species that are declining in the Southern Appalachian require ESH somewhere in their life cycle,” he said.

“If we decide it is important to stem their decline, then there’s no (other) choice than to take an active management role. That means more fire and timber harvesting.”

Nevertheless, while ESH is vital to species whose populations are in decline, this habitat type must be in the right distribution, in the right places, and at appropriate scales. Sutton and Prater said old-growth stands are also underrepresented in the forest and a part of the complex matrix of habitat types needed to satisfy a range of species.

While more ESH is needed, having more habitat for a specific species is not necessarily better for the overall ecosystem, Smalling said. A hands-off approach to wildlife habitat is also a management choice, he suggested.

“If 10,000 acres are good for species x, is 20,000 acres better? Well, no,” he said. “Then you start to cut into other habitats. What are the tradeoffs? Who wins and who loses from a biological perspective.”

Sam Evans, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center and member of the stakeholders forum agrees that ESH is underrepresented in the forest, especially if you look at those tracts in isolation.

However, he has concerns that environmental conservation organizations they partner with, including MountainTrue, The Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Sierra Club, have been portrayed as opposing management to benefit wildlife within the national forest.

“Nobody who is actively participating in stakeholder discussions is objecting to increasing habitat diversity, including an increase in harvest for ESH,” said Evans in an email written to CPP. He said that the organizations he works with are “wildlife advocates.”

“The truth is, I and other conservation voices are supporting precisely the same goal—restoration of ecological integrity in order to provide needed habitat for all the forest’s native species,” Evans said.

Smalling believes that it makes sense that the NCWRC and the FWCC advocate for hunting access issues since maintaining game populations for hunting is central to their missions. However, the NCWRC’s state mandate includes protecting both game and nongame species.

Richard Mode, a representative of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation (NCWF) and participant of the forest plan revision, said his organization represents a broad range of wildlife enthusiasts, from hunters to birders. The NCWF is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect, conserve and restore wildlife and habitat in North Carolina.

“Our membership is broad and diverse because we engage in such a wide range of issues. Our organization represents anybody that cares about wildlife from any perspective,” Mode said.

According to the 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation published every five years (2016 has not been released) shows that of the 3.5 million North Carolinians who participated in wildlife-related recreation, 2.4 million were wildlife watchers (observing, feeding, photographing); 1.5 million were anglers; and 335,000 were hunters.

Mode, who identifies as a hunter, said, “We know that both game and nongame species are declining because of our full canopy forest. We are an active management organization — we believe in timber practices, thinnings, using motorized equipment, managed fire.”

“However, we realize there are members within our organization that value wilderness characteristics,” he said. “Part of our goal is to sit down at the table and work with other stakeholders.”

Past missteps and the way forward

While Mode is keen to look ahead in the national forest planning process, he recognizes that past missteps have been problematic and slowed the revision process that is now in its fifth year.

“We should be able to sit down around the table and look at issues, and even if we disagree, come to consensus on what’s best for the resources,” Mode said. “We have too many other threats out there to tear each other up over this.”

Among the notable hang-ups thus far in the process were a controversial proposal for two national recreation areas; confusion around the forest service’s announcement in 2014 that 700,000 acres of land would be suitable for timber management; and anti-wilderness resolutions passed by 12 counties and two towns.

While participants of the planning process are trying to move past those hang-ups, the current debate has made consensus-building more challenging.

“The conflict is a product of the last forest plan which set forest management targets that were off the mark, fiscally and practically,” said Prater, who understands why hunters may be frustrated with the decline in game due to poor habitat.

Still, he’s concerned that wilderness designation has been unfairly portrayed as the enemy in the forest planning process.

“Managing a landscape requires a balance around multiple uses,” Prater said. “Wilderness is one of the multiple uses and one of the values on the landscape.”

Undoubtedly, balancing those range of values across a million acre landscape is perhaps the toughest job in the room as the forest service weighs the priorities, public input and scientific knowledge to form a management plan that will serve wildlife — and humans — for the next two decades.

Jack Igelman

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

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