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 a long wait, the public will finally have an opportunity to review the first draft of a plan that will manage the more than 1.1 million acres of Western North Carolina’s two national forests for the next two decades.

The National Forests of North Carolina office of the U.S. Forest Service released the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests Proposed Land Management Plan and a draft Environmental Impact Statement on its website Friday afternoon.

In a video also released Friday, Forest Service planning team leader Michelle Aldridge said the plan was developed around through themes “connecting people to the land, sustaining healthy ecosystems, providing clean and abundant water and partnering with others.”

Among the four national forest units in North Carolina, the two western forests — Pisgah National Forest and Nantahala National Forest — are guided by a single land-management plan.

[New to what this plan is, what it means and its significance in North Carolina? This FAQ may help you get up-to-date.]

The purpose of the land management plan is strategic in nature, and it does not approve any site-specific projects. However, it does set overarching goals and desired conditions intended to achieve social, economic and environmental well-being for the forests. It is also significant for North Carolina because these forests hold the majority of all publicly owned national forest land in the state. They spread across 18 counties of the state, including well-known locations such as Bent Creek, Looking Glass Falls, Nantahala River Gorge and Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.

The current management plan was last revised in 1994.

The proposed plan outlines four possible management alternatives.

  • Alternative A would take no action and revert to existing management policies.
  • Alternative B would respond to those who desire more flexibility for managing vegetation patterns, wildlife habitat, recreation and access.
  • Alternative C would respond to those who desire more certainty defined in the forest plan and less project-level flexibility for managing vegetation patterns, wildlife habitat, recreation and access.
  • Alternative D is an intermediate approach between B and C, in terms of plan restrictions versus project flexibility for vegetation management, recreation and access. Alternative C recommends the fewest acres for wilderness, while Alternative B recommends the most acreage for future designation by the U.S. Congress.

“The alternatives were designed based on shared values that we heard from our partners and the public to offer win-win solutions and minimize polarization,” Aldridge said.

“The Forest Service does not have a preferred alternative.”

Join Carolina Public Press for a free public forum on the future of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, either in person or via a live stream. RSVPs are required. Go here to learn more and reserve your seat.

What the proposed plan means

The overall strategies outlined in the proposed plan may have broad implications, including which acres and rivers are recommended for greater federal protection. Recommendations for the management of forest resources also include a wide range of strategies, from improving wildlife habitat to the protection of Native American cultural resources.

Beginning in 2012, the Forest Service has overseen the effort to revise the Pisgah and Nantahala land management plan.

Past federal legislation and new planning guidelines developed in 2012 dictate that the Forest Service must listen to a wide range of stakeholders and users while employing the best science available to revise a plan that will set the strategy for managing more than 1.1 million acres of national forest.

The 2012 planning rules were intended to shorten the planning process to three to four years. However, the revision process marked its seventh anniversary last November. Among the reasons cited for the delay include the complexity of new and untested planning guidelines and the high level of public interest in the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests.

“I’m excited to see what the Forest Service is proposing for the future of the forests,” said American Whitewater stewardship director Kevin Colburn, who has been active in the revision process.

“From what we’ve seen so far, we think the plan will reflect a lot of good ideas and hard work and have ample room for additional input. I hope that everyone who cares about the forests can make it to a public meeting, give the draft plan some thought, and let the Forest Service know what you think. This is a big deal for our region.”

Currently, 127 national forests in the United States and its territories require a plan. Among those, many are overdue or were delayed as the federal government developed a new planning process. The plan in Western North Carolina was among eight national forests selected to implement the new planning rule and put the process to the test.

Response to the plan

Because of deeply held historical, cultural and philosophical views, the priorities and values of forest users can vary widely in North Carolina. Finding harmony around the range of values has been among the greatest challenges of the forest plan.

The chair of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council, David Whitmire, said he is eager to see the plan address forest restoration needs throughout the forest that will benefit wildlife habitat.

“With the amount of input, this plan took longer than others,” he said. “But we think that work will help us complete projects that we really need.”

For now, his goal is to review the alternatives and gather input from resource managers, including the NC Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) and the Forest Service, and gather “quality input” from forest users and hunters about how the alternative will impact wildlife and habitat restoration goals.

Andrea Leslie of the NCWRC said the agency has worked with the Forest Service for the past several years to provide input on plan components.

“Our focus has been the protection, maintenance, and restoration of a diversity of natural communities, providing habitat for rare and common species, as well as game and priority species, namely the NC Wildlife Action Plan’s species of greatest conservation need,” she said.

“We support a management approach that increases the public’s opportunity to enjoy wildlife-related activities, such as hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, and photography.”

Lang Hornthal, a member of the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership leadership team and communications director for the Asheville based nonprofit EcoForesters, said he’s eager to discuss the ramifications of each alternative with other groups and organizations that have provided input to the Forest Service during the planning process.

“Forest planning is at the center of EcoForesters mission to conserve and restore Appalachian forests,” he said.

“We’re excited to see what the Forest Service’s twenty plus year vision for the Pisgah and Nantahala forests looks like.”

In addition to accepting written comments, throughout the revision process, the Forest Service has hosted over 40 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.

Will Harlan, the executive director of Forest Keeper and lead organizer of the I HEART PISGAH campaign, told CPP that he is hopeful that the Forest Service has responded to those comments that he says show “overwhelming support for more protected areas.”

“When 92 percent of the 22,000 public comments unequivocally express support for more protected areas,” he said, “it provides an excellent opportunity for the Forest Service to demonstrate its responsiveness to the public and the vast majority of forest users today.”

Harlan and the public will have an opportunity to further comment on the contents.

A 90-day public comment period will begin on Feb. 14 and includes several public meetings throughout the region. A final management alternative will be chosen by the National Forests of North Carolina forest supervisor in late 2021.

CPP will host a free public forum on the future of the national forests and the proposed forest plan on at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 19 at the Mannheimer Room in the Reuter Center at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

Forest Service public meeting schedule

  • March 10, Morganton: 5:30-8:30 p.m. at the Foothills Conference Center, 2128 S. Sterling Street.
  • March 16, Brevard: 5:30-8:30 p.m. at the Rogow Family Community Room, Brevard Library, 212 S. Gaston Street.
  • March 19, Brasstown: 5:30-8:30 p.m. at the Brasstown Community Center, 255 Settawig Road.
  • March 24, Franklin: 5:30-8:30 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church’s Tartan Hall, 26 Church Street.

The Forest Service has said additional public meetings will also be scheduled.

For more information

This FAQ can get you get up to date if you’re new to the process, its significance and potential impact on the forests.

This timeline shows how we got here, from the forests creation to the release of the most recent proposal.

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