Thousands of people submitted emails and other public comments about the future of the Pisgah National Forest and the Nantahala National Forest. Seen here is a stretch of the Nantahala River in Cherokee County. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

After seven years of groundwork, the U.S. Forest Service is on the verge of updating a management plan for Pisgah and Nantahala national forests.

However, Forest Service employees haven’t devised it alone.

The Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership — a collaborative group that has brought together a cross section of public land interests — has endured the marathon revision process and intends to outlast the plan’s completion in order to monitor its oversight of the 1.1 million acres within the two western North Carolina national forests.

“It’s frustrating when conflict is the story that gets told the most about the forest plan revision,” said Lang Hornthal, a member of the group’s leadership team who represents the interests of the forest products industry. “We’ve been in the room together for seven years. That’s a story people haven’t heard.”

The NPFP’s objective has been to provide guidance in creating the best forest plan possible. Among the group’s urgent questions is whether its input will influence the draft forest plan’s content and the design of future projects intended to restore the two forests’ ecological health and economic sustainability.

Forest Service collaboration specialist Alice Cohen told CPP in an email that the Forest Service expects to release a draft forest plan and draft environmental impact statement by the end of the summer.

The NPFP created a charter in 2013 and was initially funded by the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. Jill Gottesman of The Wilderness Society was among the leaders who helped form the NPFP. She said the group emerged from recreational and conservation interests who were interested in discussing a range of forest issues in preparation for the start of the plan revision process in 2012.

Among the original participants in the NPFP’s early meetings, the “overwhelming conclusion was that the only way to succeed was to take a bigger-tent approach and include a broader community of organizations that use national forests,” Gottesman said.

“2013 was a year of massive outreach, networking and brainstorming,” she said.

In all, the organization identified seven interest areas, including wildlife, recreation, conservation, economic development, forest products, cultural heritage and recreation. According to its website, there are currently 31 “active” and “affiliate” member organizations such as the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, Columbia Forest Products, Trout Unlimited and the Sierra Club.

Over time, however, membership and attendance at meetings have been fluid. For one, Gottesman said, “It’s really hard to ask people to be this invested for this amount of time.”

Among the groups absent, for example, is the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council, a grassroots organization of hunters and anglers.

“As a grassroots group with no paid staff, it was a decision that we made based on our resources and time,” David Whitmire of the FWCC said.

The FWCC, however, has been active in another collaborative effort, known as the Stakeholders Forum for the Nantahala and Pisgah Plan Revision, that was formed in 2015 by the Forest Service and facilitated by its congressionally legislated nonprofit partner, the National Forest Foundation based in Missoula, Mont.

Many of the groups and individuals involved in the NPFP were also participating in the Stakeholders Forum. Although the forum’s “purpose and goals” stated that it was not intended to replace other collaborative groups, Hornthal said that it was a challenge to sustain both groups simultaneously.

Nevertheless, Hornthal said, “When the NPFP formed, the commitment was to see the plan through implementation. It was an easy decision to carry on because we shared in the drive that we were a part of something new and better than business as usual.” The NPFP’s persistence throughout the plan revision process, he said, “validated our approach.”

Cohen of the Forest Service said the NPFP’s input has helped shape the draft plan and environmental impact statement.

“We appreciate their stamina through the process, their creativity to suggest new approaches and their passion for building a plan that meets the needs of the resources and stakeholders,” Cohen said.

2012 planning rule

In 2012, the Forest Service established new planning guidelines that include an emphasis on collaboration among national forest users.

Megan Sutton of The Nature Conservancy and a member of the NPFP leadership team said the rules don’t include directions on the exact way to do it.

Forest planning, Sutton said, is like a recipe for baking a cake without pinpointing the list of ingredients.

“The planning directives are the equivalent of saying: put in something that rises or put in some kind of fat product,” she said. “Rather than assuming that you need Crisco, you have to figure it out on your own.”

The approach of the NPFP, said member Sam Evans, who represents the Southern Environmental Law Center, has been to define a broad “zone of consent” among forest users and interests.

The approach is to help the Forest Service develop a management plan and take actions that a wide range of stakeholders can accept without opposition.

In addition to including groups that enthusiastically support a particular action, the boundaries of the “zone of consent” are also occupied by less enthusiastic interests, such as groups that will not oppose the action as long as it’s matched by another need.

For example, timber interests in rural counties may not necessarily want more land protection, such as wilderness designation, but would not oppose protection if they can access more timber in another part of the forest.

“A functional collaborative group will usually be very good at providing solutions to meet competing interests simultaneously by showing the Forest Service where there’s potential conflict prior to the release of the plan,” Evans said.

He added that collaboration can also minimize conflict by gathering the collective wisdom of a group by adapting and innovating solutions to potential conflicts.

But NPFP leaders are looking for more than just a grudging willingness to accept a management action. They’re looking for buy-in, too. If a group’s needs are being met by the forest plan, then it may have more “skin in the game,” Evans said, and therefore more to lose by introducing friction or resistance, for instance, by using litigation or political pressure.

Sophia Paulos, a member of the NPFP leadership team and Graham County’s economic development director, said she’s spent hours poring over maps with the rural county’s logging industry, recreation and tourism interests, residents and local government in order to share their wishes and concerns with members of the NPFP.

“Instead of waiting for the Forest Service, the NPFP’s proposal has reflected what our county needs. Without this process, those intricacies can’t get vetted out,” she said.

“Finding all that meat in the middle has been a long process, but it’s there. It just wasn’t out in the open.”

However, one area where multiple groups with conflicting interests seem to intersect is the ecological restoration of the forest — that is, using a range of management practices to restore the ecological health of the forest by using techniques, such as controlled burns or timber clearings to replace spontaneous natural disturbances caused by wildfire or weather.

“There’s a lot of interest in making parts of the forest younger and making parts of the forest grow older for many different reasons and values,” said Kevin Colburn, a member of the NPFP’s leadership and stewardship director of American Whitewater.

“One of the nuances we found is that ecological restoration as a concept meshes with pretty much everyone’s values. Whether you shop at REI, Cabelas or both, you will probably see more of what you want in the forest.”

And that’s the point, said Chris Coxen, also part of the leadership team and a biologist with the National Wild Turkey Federation, whose constituents want improved habitat for wildlife: Protection and restoration can occur simultaneously at a greater scale than has occurred in the past.

“The end goal of this process is to help the Forest Service identify how those things should occur on the forest,” he said, adding that conflicts often crop up after the completion of forest plans during the planning and implementation of specific projects.

“If you don’t work on it and get it figured out now, then it’s going to get worked out on the project level, which is really inefficient.”

Will the plan succeed?

The key, Evans said, is the agency’s commitment to encouraging cooperation. If the Forest Service prioritizes a particular management style, it could increase the likelihood of conflict at the project level by encouraging competition rather than cooperation, even though cooperation is more likely to lead to a better outcome, in this case, an ecologically healthier forest serving more interests, Evans said.

“The NPFP has role-modeled reciprocity and mutual support to convince the Forest Service” that its strategic decisions should ensure that everyone’s values are reflected in the plan, said leadership team member Josh Kelly of MountainTrue.

“If the agency prioritizes a certain style of land management, (it could) encourage conflict by putting people’s values in direct conflict with one another.”

To motivate collaboration, Evans said that rather than prioritizing land protection over timber harvesting — or the other way around — the NPFP has suggested forest planners adopt a set of “stretch goals” or “tiered objectives.”

The strategy initially targets modest goals for each forest project and only stretches to more ambitious objectives once the needs of all stakeholders are met as a project progresses.

“You can’t get anything done on public land without partnerships,” Coxen said. “The notion that your organization can work in a bubble and accomplish what you want for your interest is old school. I don’t see that ever happening again. There aren’t enough resources to accomplish projects alone; we have to do it together.”

In 2017, the NPFP submitted a 43-page document with a list of recommendations for the Forest Service to consider. While they continue to meet, it’s waiting for the release of the draft plan.

By law, a 90-day public comment period will follow, but Colburn said that he and other leaders will have “90 minutes to respond to our members” once the draft plan is released.

“Our challenge is to help the public understand what the draft plan means to them and to help them understand that they will get more of what they want through this collaborative approach by raising all boats,” he said.

And regardless of what the Forest Service comes up, Horntahl said, “We aren’t going anywhere.”

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