Carla Brank, of Asheville, fishes for trout in Santeetlah Creek at Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, in Graham County. She says she's confident about the long-term survival of the majestic forests that provide the cold-water habitats these fish require. Joyce Kilmer is celebrating the 75th anniversary of its dedication this year. Photo by Mike Belleme

The town of Robbinsville, nestled in the state’s southwest corner 90 miles from Asheville, has struggled to find an economic foothold over the last few years.

The seat of Graham County is still recovering from its worst economic setback in decades, when Stanley Furniture shuttered its plant and shed over 300 jobs in 2014, a devastating hit for a town of around 600 residents.

While county leaders hope to revive the town’s timber economy, the future of the county’s nearly 9,000 residents remains heavily linked to the resources within Nantahala National Forest, with or without lumber production.

Jacob Nelms is a Graham County commissioner. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

How the U.S. government manages national forest land in the future may depend on the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest Land Management plan currently under revision and slated for completion next year. The plan will lay out the management direction of the forest for the next two decades.

“When two-thirds of your county is federal land, it touches all facets of your economy,” said Graham County Commissioner Jacob Nelms, a building inspector and local restaurant owner.

“The forest can make or break us,” County Manager Becky Garland said. “It enters into almost every conversation that we have in the local government on every decision that we make.”

While other rural western counties have attempted to influence the forest plan revision, most have operated at the fringes of the planning process. By instead forging an active role in the collaborative process that federal planning rules mandates, Graham County’s leadership has taken a unique position.

Jimmy Lee of Oak Valley Hardwoods
Jimmy Lee, a native of China, owns Oak Valley Hardwoods, which operates a dry kiln operation for wood in Robbinsville. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

Economics and forest resources

Graham’s participation in the forest’s management comes at a time when national forest resources may be at the peak of relevance to the local and regional economy, including a growing reliance on recreation and tourism. Within Graham County are some of the region’s most popular destinations including the Cherohala Skyway, Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, Santeetlah Lake and the Cheoah River.

Graham County Commissioner Dale Wiggins said the national forest planning process was the reason he chose to seek a second stint in county government in 2016. He previously served as a commissioner from 1994 to 2002.

Dale Wiggins of Graham County
Graham County Commissioner Dale Wiggins. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

“This forest plan was the biggest motivator for me to get back involved,” he said. “I didn’t feel like we were doing enough. I understand how the process works and that if you don’t have a presence, then you aren’t heard.”

In addition to its large federal land base, Graham County has been distinguished by its high unemployment rate, which soared to 20 percent after the Stanley Furniture plant shut down. Although the unemployment rate was down to 6.2 percent in April, it remained the sixth-highest in North Carolina.

Charlotte-based Oak Valley Hardwoods has absorbed some of the jobs lost in the Stanley closure. In November 2014, the company’s owner, Jimmy Lee, announced the purchase of Stanley’s 600,000-square-foot facility, which now employs 23. Lee’s company exports rough-cut oak, poplar and other hardwoods to markets in Asia and has six locations throughout North Carolina and others in Virginia and Tennessee.

“The people in Graham County are very pure-hearted,” Lee said. Born and raised in a rural agriculture region of China, Lee said that he identified with the work ethic of local residents. “I had a very good feeling about Robbinsville. I wanted to do something here.”

The dry kiln facility is a fragment of the size of the furniture enterprise that once employed 700 at its peak. While diminished, Lee’s operation has re-created a handful of jobs in timber, allowing the town to keep a foothold in an industry that had been the foundation of its economy for more than a century.

Oak Valley Hardwoods sawmill in Graham County
The Oak Valley Hardwoods dry kiln operation for wood is providing jobs to 23 residents of Graham County. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

Sophia Paulos, the county’s economic director, said that with a population of only 9,000, 23 jobs have an impact.  “Equally important,” she said is that “the type of work helps to maintain the cultural tradition of working with the forest to earn a living.”

While Lee hopes to expand the operation in Robbinsville that takes rough-cut lumber and dries it in industrial-sized kilns, he said the growth of his operation depends on timber that must come from within a 50-mile radius of his plant. Much of that acreage is within the boundaries of federal forests.

So far, access to more timber within Pisgah and Nantahala national forests has been a central platform of some rural counties in Western North Carolina, including Graham.

To establish a voice in the forest planning process, Graham and 11 other counties in Western North Carolina passed nonbinding resolutions that called for no new federally designated wilderness.

In response to county concerns, U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Sapphire, organized a “listening session” in Macon County in 2016, with county leaders from throughout the region. The Forest Service forest supervisor of North Carolina, members of the planning team and district staff were present. The private meeting was not open to the public.

A second meeting in Haywood County took place to hear from wilderness advocates who were not allowed access to the August meeting.

Lang Hornthal, a member of the Stakeholders Forum for the Nantahala and Pisgah Plan Revision, said the meetings that Meadows hosted demonstrated a need to hear directly from counties in the collaborative effort that has developed in the forest planning process.

“When there isn’t direct county involvement, all you can go on is what you read in the papers and what you hear,” Hornthal said.

“That’s why the (Stakeholders Forum) made an initial reaching-out to all of the counties in an effort to see if we could meet with county commissioners to hear their concerns and ideas, but to also explain what the forum is doing to date and why we are doing it.”

In February 2017, the Stakeholders Forum leadership assembled an action plan to reach out to engage counties and include them in the collaborative process. Formed in 2015, the Stakeholders Forum is made up of representatives with multiple interests, however, county leaders were not among the membership.

Forest Lookouts
Carolina Public Press has reported on the future of Pisgah and Natahala national forests for more than three years. Click to read more from that ongoing reporting here.

Karen DiBiri works for the Montana-based National Forest Foundation, the organization that oversaw the Stakeholders Forum on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service. She explained that organizers struggled with the decision of whom to involve when the group was created.

“There was a long list of interest, and counties were among them,” DiBriri said. The challenge, she explained, was trying to keep the group from becoming too large.

“It was just a big challenge the group couldn’t resolve, but we’ve always recognized that counties are very important and tied to public land and (that) commissioners are paying attention,” she said. “The reality is that county commissioners don’t have time to attend daylong meetings. If we are going to talk to counties we are going to have to go them.”

At the same time, Graham County was eager to participate.

American Whitewater, a national organization representing whitewater paddlers, formed a partnership with the county in the early 2000s to lobby federal dam regulators to implement a dam release schedule to allow the Cheoah River to flow for the first time in nearly eight decades.

American Whitewater’s national stewardship director, Kevin Colburn, said that while a commercial whitewater industry has yet to develop in Graham County, noncommercial whitewater paddling has made a measurable contribution to the recreation economy.

“We had a good success and a good outcome through working together that changed things for the better,” Colburn said.

County economic development director Paulos worked with Colburn in spring 2017, adjusting changes to the release schedule on the Cheoah. Last summer, Colburn, on behalf of the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership, invited Paulos to become a member, representing Graham County.

Created in 2013, the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership is one of several groups that have formed to provide guidance to the Forest Service during the plan revision process.

Colburn said the partnership has attempted to engage rural counties in its effort.

“It’s a big ask,” he said. “It’s a multiyear, complex process with an unknown outcome that would be peripheral to your job and mission.”

At the time, Paulos, who had relocated from Washington, D.C., in 2016, was concerned that Graham County voices weren’t being heard.

Sophia Poulos
Sophia Paulos is economic development director for Graham County. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

Forest crucial to economy

“I immediately saw the forest plan as crucial to Graham,” Paulos said. “Whether it’s tourism or timber, our economy is dependent on the forest. It’s a part of us. So I felt like it was very important for us to be at the table and speak on behalf of our people.”

She assembled a meeting in March 2017 at the community center in Graham County to hear from residents, more than 100 of whom attended. Among the concerns that emerged at the meeting was wilderness designation, access to closed roads, fire danger, timber harvesting and recreation.

That meeting was an eye-opener to Garland, who became the county manager in January 2017 and gave Paulos, along with several commissioners, her blessing to participate in the partnership.

Becky Garland is county manager of Graham County. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

Garland said Paulos has kept the county manager informed about the plan and has “brought people to my office that I would have never dreamed of talking with to help me understand their viewpoints and enable me to give my viewpoint back.”

“It’s always been ‘Let’s butt heads with the federal government.’” Garland said. “For the first time, we may possibly have the opportunity — because we are at the table — to bring those issues to the table and hope we’ll be listened to. If nothing else, I feel more empowered to give arguments that hold water,” she said.

Garland said Graham County receives roughly $300,000 annually as payments in lieu of taxes, which are federal funds to offset losses in property taxes due to nontaxable federal land.

“($300,000) can pay about 5.5 salaries in our public safety sector,” she said. “It makes a huge difference for us in our budget. We are duty and morally bound to provide services to our residents. So the (payments in lieu of taxes are) like the bow on the shoestring for us. It makes all the difference.”

The county also receives $200,000 in secure rural schools payments, which provide funding to rural schools located near national forests. But last year, the SRS payments to Graham County dropped to $42,000, which put a greater burden on the county to make up the loss, Garland said.

In addition to funding concerns, the relationship with the Cheoah Ranger District office headquartered in Robbinsville is strained.

Residents have a high level of respect for employees at the ranger office, but “from the citizen standpoint, they are just the building on Massey Branch (Road),” Nelms said.

“I don’t know how many rangers we’ve been through in the last 10 years. We want to know that they are committed to the community. We want the Forest Service to be part of our community.”

Marshall McClung
Marshall McClung is a lifelong Graham County resident and a U.S. Forest Service retiree. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

Seeking better access

In addition to more stable staffing, many residents want improved access to portions of the forest to hunt, fish or for economic reasons.

Lifelong Graham County resident Marshall McClung retired from the U.S. Forest Service, but he continues to fight fires for the state forestry services. He also serves as a coordinator of the Graham County Search and Rescue Squad.

“Most (Forest Service) roads remain gated because they don’t have the funds to maintain them,” McClung said

“Residents want to see those roads opened up for recreational use and more budget to manage the forest and access to the forest.”

He added that rescue operations can be more difficult and costly due to poor road and trail conditions.

“The Cheoah Ranger District always seems to be the red-headed stepchild — we had the least funding, the least employees, the least everything,” McClung said. “That still seems to be the case.”

Alice Cohen, a spokesperson for the National Forests of North Carolina office in Asheville, said that in spring 2017, the Forest Service reached out to each county that the forest plan affects, as well as the three western councils of government.

Many of the primary concerns, such as access to recreation and timber, budgets, staff turnover and forest health, were “echoed in each county,” Cohen said.

“We really appreciate the passion and input that we’ve heard from county representatives. We value hearing their interests and concerns. Thus far, the Forest Service has received an ‘unprecedented’ amount of input from counties that has helped shape potential alternatives in the draft plan.

“The intent behind collaboration is to be supportive of a wide range of interests. All of this pre-work is helping us design a better forest plan that can be broadly supported.”

Cohen added that a range of factors beyond the control of the Forest Service often affects budgets and staffing. Nevertheless, she said the federal agency remains committed to expanding access and building a forest plan that helps create a more ecologically and economically sustainable forest.

Garland said access to a healthy forest is vital to the success of the local economy and the ability to keep the next generation of people in Graham County.

“We have these beautiful mountains, streams and lakes,” she said. “Whether people stay for a night, a week or the next 20 years, we have a lot to offer. I don’t want future generations to think there’s no future here. My vision is that we have a healthy economy so they have a choice.”

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