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

Thousands of public comments to the U.S. Forest Service since 2012 have communicated what individuals, organizations and other government entities think should be done with the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests in Western North Carolina, whose management plan is currently undergoing a major revision.

Through a federal Freedom of Information Act request, Carolina Public Press has obtained and analyzed roughly 7,000 emails that were not otherwise available publicly.

This is the first of three articles from CPP looking at who sent those emails and what they’ve had to say.

The revision process and public comments

In 2017, 4.6 million people visited the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests.

While many of those visitors may be unaware that they can comment and influence the ongoing revision of the management plan that will oversee the two forests, many users and advocates are aware and have taken advantage of the opportunity.

According to the Friends of Big Ivy organizer  Will Harlan, thousands of public comments on the forest plan revision have been delivered at public events and forums, through personal emails, form letters, telephone calls and Post-it notes.

The purpose of those comments is simple: to gather citizen input to help guide the management of one of the region’s most precious resources. The forest management plan will oversee more than 1 million acres of federal forest in Western North Carolina and supervise its multiple ranges of uses, from wildlife habitat to recreation to timber harvesting.

In this article, CPP has reviewed a range of electronic messages to the Forest Service from individuals to capture some of the nuanced comments and concerns of national forest users and advocates, and to better understand what Forest Service planners, experts and administrators have reviewed.

“Comments give policymakers a signal of how salient an issue is,” said Chris Cooper, department head of the political science and public affairs department at Western Carolina University.

“Often no one says anything during public comment periods. The large volume of comments shows that this is a complex process and that many people are activated.”

The emails have also revealed some of the topics, resources and places meaningful to users of the region’s national forests.

Making voices heard

While the Forest Service has hosted 42 public meetings since the start of the revision process in 2012, not everyone with a stake in the plan’s outcome can attend, made evident by this note from former National Park Service employee Carle-Anne Cordero, commenting on the overall direction of the U.S. Forest Service:

“I feel it may be time to shift the mission of the forest service a little more toward conservation rather than timber management. Sadly, I have a prior commitment and will not be able to make the February 5th meeting. Hence, this letter,” she wrote.

The ability to comment allows the public to weigh in on issues such as wilderness designation along with the minutiae of public forest management, including this email from Henry Setzer about firewood collection:

“It would be great if people with a current firewood permit, (were) allowed to cut down a tree, or two, in certain areas. Finding usable downed firewood, which is not rotted, is next to impossible. I would gladly pay for the privilege and it would generate extra funds in these hard times of budget cutbacks. Please give this some thought.”

Or this one about a specific tree within an email advocating for land protection:

“There’s at least one 48-inch specimen white oak, still healthy, with a strong understory of rhododendrons. There is also an infestation of Japanese spiraea which will spread more rapidly if given more sunlight,” wrote Randy Burroughs, a landscape architect.

Concerted efforts

Many of the emails focused on issues that have dominated the forest planning process, including wilderness designation, forest ecology, recreation, timber harvesting and wildlife management. When there are a large number of comments, there has typically been group mobilization by a special-interest group.

While they may sound the same, some of the boilerplate comments may reflect deep feelings people have over the forest, such as comments from Jeff Johnson, a timber-frame builder who reflects the views of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council, a local grassroots wildlife advocacy group.

“At this time, we do not support more wilderness areas or further designated areas. In addition to the designated wilderness areas (70,000 acres) and wilderness study areas (27,000 acres), there 33 Inventoried Roadless Areas (152,000 acres) for a total of nearly 250,000 acres or 25 percent of the National Forest Lands. If you add in 40 percent (USFS estimate) of the old growth designation that does not overlap with the above (68,000 acres), the total is 317,000 acres or almost one third of the forest that is essentially wilderness.”

And this comment from Whitney Shore, which was similar to more than 200 emails advocating for the protection of Big Ivy, an area within Pisgah National Forest in Buncombe County:

“Natural areas with native species and a sense of solitude are getting harder and harder to find. It is very important that the new management plan for the forest maintain as much natural habitat and solitude as possible. … Big Ivy is one of these very special places that provides unique recreation opportunities for locals and visitors alike. We are blessed to have this high-quality forest located so close to Asheville and surrounding communities, all of which depend on tourism and the economic value it brings to our area. By not protecting Big Ivy and other special places in the Pisgah and Nantahala Forests from logging, the Forest Service undermines the long term sustainability of or ecosystems and economies.”

Specific areas of interest

While comments from organized interest groups may overshadow the number of individual comments, CPP searched for emails that seemed to rally for issues that have stayed at the fringes of the public process and provide decision-makers nuanced views the Forest Service must consider in order to draft a highly technical policy.

For example, there were a handful of users favoring motorcycle and off-highway vehicle access.

“My family rides motorcycles for fun and I am a taxpayer. I have heard talk that the government may be planning to close some of trails we love to ride on. This is troubling news because we should trying to cut out wasteful spending in Washington, D.C. not take away the things that people (taxpayers) like us love to do. I ride at Brown Mountain OHV in Morganton, NC, and I would pay more to ride there than to have (it) closed down,” wrote Jeff Blevins of Wilkesboro.

Middle school science educator Daniel Cathey conveyed in an email that he uses the forest to collect minerals to share with his students, many of whom are from low-income families.

“Access to collecting in National Forest Lands allows me to collect mineral specimens without breaking my personal bank and allows me to share my experiences and minerals that I have found,” he wrote. “I try to include as many authentic hands-on activities as I can each week … (which is) a crucial way of reaching many of my students.”

While he gives the samples to students, his hope is to start a process “where they are thinking about what they are looking at in a scientific way.  That process if cultivated will produce citizens who care about the natural world.”

Others are interested in not what can be reaped from the forest but what can be placed there. Derek DeBruin, a recreational and commercial rock climber, advocated in an email for increased knowledge of using hardware, such as bolts for anchors, on climbing routes.

“When placed appropriately and judiciously, they serve to greatly increase climber safety without detrimentally impacting the resource or its use by others. In some cases, the installation of fixed anchors such as bolts may even serve to protect living natural resources such as trees from being used as fixed anchors which may be unintentionally harmed,” DeBruin said.

Other emails, including one from Forrest Bittner Chambless of Lincoln County, attempted to capture the intangible, in this case, the aesthetic of an old-growth forest.

“The beauty and difficult-to-delineate feeling and atmosphere of an old-growth forest is something more than just magical and awe-inspiring for the young and old. It is an eye-opening experience that is scientifically verifiably full of high levels of ionic charges and specific trace elements in the air that provide specific healing stimuli. I challenge anyone to just, anecdotally even, admittedly, go into one of the areas, stop for at least 10 minutes, and measure how much wider your eyes are open, your nostrils are open, your vision just seems a little clearer.”

Does each comment matter?

Forest Service planner Michelle Aldridge said the agency is carefully looking at all of the comments; however, she said it is difficult to place a number on comments received. For example, does a letter from an organization with 300 members represent one comment or 300?

Cooper of WCU pointed out that research on public commenting suggests that registering your position or your opinion as a public comment may not be weighted equally.

“It’s not a vote,” he said.

W.V. McConnell of Tallahassee, Fla., in an email to the Forest Service, included his qualifications and suggested that “comments on this issue be weighted by the qualifications of the commentator.”

There is evidence that who delivers the remarks may indeed matter, Cooper said. “If you’re a bureaucratic expert in an area, you may give more credence to the people who are speaking the language and appear to know what they are talking about.”

There is also evidence, Cooper said, that the order of comments can have an influence.

“The ones that come in first tend to be more influential in policymaking. Your idea may get baked in earlier so that the later comments matter less than the first ones. I don’t think that’s a conspiracy – it’s just human.”

Vernon English IV summed up the wishes of perhaps every commenter in the national forest planning process.

“I rarely post my full name with the surname behind it. However, when I do, you know it is of great importance that I am doing so,” he wrote. “I speak truthfully in my wishes, let them not fall on deaf ears.”

Selections from previous reporting on national forests plan revision

  • Massive volume of comments delays draft forest plan’s release, Sept. 28, 2018: link
  • Graham County, where the national forest drives the economy, June 25, 2018: link
  • Wilderness protection for coveted trails divides cyclists, conservationists, May 21, 2018: link
  • Long process of revising plan for national forests nears crucial point, March 2, 2018: link
  • Thousands of years of expertise: Cherokees contribute to national forest management plan, Dec. 21, 2017: link
  • Big Ivy support bucks trend of local government opposition to wilderness, Oct. 3, 2017: link
  • Wildlife at center of disagreements in revising national forests plan, June 5, 2017: link
  • Long process of national forests plan revision continues, May 15, 2017: link
  • Wilderness recommendations face challenging political path, Sept. 6, 2016: link
  • Wilderness alternatives could expand acreage or stand pat, July 26, 2016: link
  • Changing times in Franklin, changing attitudes on national forests, June 9, 2016: link
  • Forest service in home stretch on draft forest plan, May 12, 2016: link
  • Angry signs in the NC wilderness, April 25, 2016: link
  • Forest process could protect more Western North Carolina rivers, Jan. 26, 2016: link
  • Behind-the-scenes effort seeks harmony on forests plan, Oct. 21, 2015: link

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

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