Wilderness areas could be added to existing national forests.
A scene in the Pisgah National Forest. Jack Igelman/Carolina Public Press.

The US Forest Service has postponed the release of the draft Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest management plan until early 2019, citing the enormous volume of public comment that the agency must evaluate.

The draft plan had been scheduled for release in late summer this year, after several previous delays.

Michelle Aldridge, a planning specialist with the US Forest Service, said more time will allow the agency to integrate its response to an unprecedented number of public comments into the draft. The Forest Service has collected feedback at dozens of meetings since 2013.

Kevin Colburn, the national stewardship director of American Whitewater and a participant in several collaborative efforts to guide the Forest Service in the planning revision process said the multi-year public-process has been grueling.

“It’s been exhausting and resource intensive, but another couple of months to make it a great plan is not a problem,” said Colburn.

“The Forest Service is doing hard work, and hard work takes time.”

Not everyone is convinced that the Forest Service has scrutinized the thousands of public comments sufficiently.

Comments linked to delay

In addition to accepting written comments, the Forest Service has hosted 42 public meetings at locations throughout the mountains. Comments have also been gathered at meetings with collaborative partners, local governments, federally recognized tribes, scientists and citizen groups.

“I have worked on 13 different revisions (at other national forests) and the degree of interest and input at these meetings is greater than I’ve seen,” Aldridge said.

“We know that people are eager to see the draft plan, but we’ve been carefully considering the input and are taking time to make adjustments to the plan.”

Federal planning guidelines approved in 2012 that mandate “more public involvement early and often,” have also factored in delaying the draft plan’s release, Aldridge said.

The forest management plan will oversee more than 1 million acres of federal forest in Western North Carolina and supervise its multiple range of uses, from recreation to timber harvesting. The plan, Aldridge said, will likely include four possible management alternatives, one of which will maintain the current plan that was finalized in 1994.

A draft environmental impact statement (EIS) will be released along with the draft plan alternatives. Federal regulations require the Forest Service evaluate the environmental impact of each alternative.

The release of the draft plan and EIS will be followed by a 90-day public comment period and a final management alternative will be chosen by the National Forests of North Carolina forest supervisor.

Quantifying and categorizing comments

Will Harlan, the editor of Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine and an organizer of the Friends of Big Ivy, led an effort to review each of the comments received by the Forest Service. Magazine staff and faculty at the University of North Carolina-Asheville spent several months examining nearly 15,000 publically available comments submitted to the Forest Service over the course of the planning revision process.

In addition, another 7,000 comments and emails were acquired from the Forest Service through a Freedom of Information Act request made by the Friends of Big Ivy and I Heart Pisgah. I Heart Pisgah is a collection of individuals and organizations advocating to protect the Pisgah and Nantahala National forests. In all, these groups reviewed 22,165 comments.

“Every inquiry we made with the Forest Service about the comments indicated that they hadn’t analyzed them in a comprehensive way,” Harlan said.

“I don’t know if they have the personnel to read every comment while they are trying to write a comprehensive management plan. People poured their hearts into those comments and we wanted to see what they had to say. The more scrutiny we can place on public comments the better. The driving force of this effort is the public’s involvement and their voice.”

According to the group’s review of comments available on the Forest Service’s public reading room webpage, 98 percent of the comments supported more conservation and stronger protection while 2 percent of the comments were in favor of more logging and fewer protections. Harlan said that, after reviewing the combination of public comments and comments from the FOIA request, 92.3 percent are “pro-protection” and 7.7 percent “anti-protection.”

Doubts about clear categories and intent

Aldridge said quantifying public comments or attempting to categorize them may be misleading.

“The comments we receive are not black and white and contain different thoughts on a gamut of interests,” she said.

“We revisit the content of public comments every day and they help us understand how different people use, depend on and appreciate the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests. The fingerprints of the public appear on every page (of the draft plan).”

Andrea Leslie, a biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and participant in the collaborative process said that she’s not surprised most comments favor protection.

“We all value this forest and we want resources and uses protected,” she said. “It just depends on how UNC-Asheville and Blue Ridge Outdoors are using or farming the word ‘protection.’”

For example, a hunter may want a mixed aged forest protected, which requires managing and harvesting timber, she said. “Is that protection?” Leslie asked. “It’s a hard term to define. If you don’t think of the complexity of the word and what it means to the person using the word, it could be divisive rather than unifying. Counting comments has some use, but you really need to dig into the details.”

Sam Evans, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center has reviewed a sample of the comments and said many of the comments focused on the management of specific places that have special value.

“People care about specific areas,” Evans said. “That’s what matters to them.”

He conceded that “anytime you try and summarize of synthesize forest planning into a bullet point you are going to lose nuance.”

Nevertheless, it would be “irresponsible to ignore the overwhelming support for keeping wild place wild,” Evans said.

“If you look a little deeper, what they are really asking for is to protect their relationship with the places that they most care about — a relationship that for most commenters is about finding solitude or peace or play or challenge in a remote and natural setting.”

“Public support for public lands in our region has always been strong because it’s a big tent —public lands for the whole public,” Evans said.

“There’s also value in relating to the land as a hunter who advocates for game wildlife management or as a logger making a living. Those uses, too, are part of our region’s heritage and they will be a part of its future.”

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

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