A citizen group hopes its proposals will shape the U.S. Forest Service's new management plan for Western North Carolina's national forests. Courtesy of the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership

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A citizen group has asked the U.S. Forest Service to consider a slate of proposed revisions to its management plan for Western North Carolina’s national forests, the Pisgah and Nantahala.

The federal agency is already drafting a new forest plan that’s scheduled for released in early 2018. Made up of more than 30 organizations, the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership’s members are hoping the Forest Service will embrace the changes they are seeking.

“The big picture is we asked the Forest Service to consider some alternatives that are win-win for everybody,” said Kevin Colburn, a member of the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership leadership team.

“We worked really hard to come up with some ideas where everybody’s interests can move forward together… The goal is to create a plan that actually gets implemented. So if you’re a small timber harvester, you can have confidence that you can go certain places and do a really good project with broad public support. If you’re a recreation business and you’ve built your business around a river or trail you can have confidence that those resources will be there as well.”

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The group said, in a press release issued Monday, that more than its constituent organizations met during the past five years to collaborate on proposals. Revisions to the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forests Land and Resource Management Plan began in 2012, with the Forest Service soliciting public input. The revised plan, which could formally be released in 2019, “will guide management of the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forests for approximately 15 years,” according to the press release.

The forest management plan could have a broader impact in some parts of Western North Carolina than others. Some of the counties in the state’s southwestern corner would be among those most directly affected.

“Graham County is unique in that 70 percent of our land is federally owned,” said Sophia Paulos, Graham County Economic Development director, according to the press release.

“The opportunity to navigate the planning process with such a broad array of interest groups was one we couldn’t afford to ignore. The Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership not only gave us a voice in the collaborative process, they also gave us the opportunity to build relationships with the wide variety of interest groups that use USFS lands in Graham County. We look forward to our continued work with our partners in the NPFP.”

The Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership statement noted that the first forest management plan was published in 1987, with a revision in 1994. The overall goals of these management plans are to protect and improve the forests’ health and wildlife habitats, ensure water sources are clean, improve recreation activities and forest access points and maintain the cultural heritage associated with the forests.

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The proposals from the partnership included ideas about locations where the forest could benefit from logging or controlled burns and other locations where those “active management” practices should be avoided, according to Colburn. The partnership also proposed placing several waterways under Forest Service protection, like the North Fork of the French Broad River and the South Toe River, while Congress determines whether to grant those rivers “wild and scenic” designation.

According to documents published by the Forest Service in June, the new forest management plan will be broken into forest-wide programs, geographic areas and management areas based upon the landscape of the forest. The forest-wide guidelines will provide a program for management of the entire forest system, with a focus on issues like soil, water, air and wildlife.

The breakdown into geographic and management areas is designed to accommodate the differences between communities and landscapes within the national forests.

Colburn said the release of the Forest Service revision draft in 2018 will be followed by a lengthy public comment period, as well as meetings where the draft will be discussed.

Ultimately, Congress would have to approve some aspects of the plan, such as new wilderness designations, before they could take effect.

Michael Gebelein

Michael Gebelein was an investigative reporter with Carolina Public Press. To contact Carolina Public Press, email info@carolinapublicpress.org or call 828-774-5290.

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