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

Members of the public with an interest in the future of the national forests in Western North Carolina are beginning to respond to the long-awaited Proposed Land Management Plan for Pisgah National Forest and Nantahala National Forest, which the U.S. Forest Service released Feb. 7.

A 90-day public comment period, required by the National Environmental Protection Act, began Friday and ends May 14.

The plan will govern management of 1.1 million acres of national forest in 18 counties across the region over the next two decades.

“It’s too early to say anything specific, but from a bird conservation perspective, we’re pleased to see what we’ve been recommending considered in the plan,” said Curtis Smalling, the Audubon Society’s North Carolina director of bird conservation.

Among the recommendations is continuing a program protecting peregrine falcons on rock faces where the rare birds prefer to nest. The program requires temporary closures of popular rock-climbing areas.

“Here’s a critical resource that’s affected by another use, and here’s a solution that has almost universal support,” Smalling told Carolina Public Press this week.

“It shows that varied interests can work together. Many groups have put in time and effort to learn about everyone’s position and desires. I think we’re all really looking forward to getting to work. There is so much good that can be done for birds and all of the things that people love about the forest.”

Four alternative approaches with ecosystem emphasis

In all, the revision presents four alternative approaches to management, said planning officer Michelle Aldridge of the U.S. Forest Service.

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

“Collaborators specifically asked the Forest Service to design alternatives that would unite interests, building upon shared values, rather than send folks back to their corners to advocate for single interests.”

Within each alternative, an “ecosystem emphasis” presents a vision for each ecological community in the forest, said Aldridge, such as the high-elevation spruce fir forests or northern hardwood forests.

“The ecosystem emphasis,” Aldridge said, “helps us manage the right thing for our forest communities” such as using prescribed fire to improve species habitat.

forum on the future of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests
Join Carolina Public Press on Wednesday, Feb. 19, for a free public forum on the future of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. Livestreaming is available. RSVPs are required. Go here to learn more and reserve your seat.

Two-tiered approach

Another unique aspect of the plan is a “two-tiered” approach to land stewardship. The first tier identifies activities the Forest Service has the budget and other resources to accomplish, while the second tier outlines what the agency can accomplish with the help of partners.

Sam Evans, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, likes the two-tiered approach. He said that while the idea has been used before, the concept hasn’t been used to structure a forest plan and has the potential to incentivize more collaboration among user and advocacy groups.

“This is an idea that came out of the collaborative process, so it shows that the Forest Service was listening to the public,” he said.

However, Evans does have concerns about how the two-tiered approach will work, such as ensuring that clear “triggers” indicate when the agency moves from one tier to the next for a specific plan objective, such as forest restoration.

Thinking of Tier 2 objectives as “stretch goals,” Evans said, “The trick is to figure out how we can reach Tier 2 objectives in an integrated way without interfering with other goals.”

For example, he said, rather than identifying a single number of acres for timber restoration, the agency can mesh restoration objectives for specific species, such as pine and oak restoration, under a broader silvicultural objective.

“That is the No. 1 thing … to figure out what those triggers are and get them clearly written into the plan between draft and final,” he said. “That’s the biggest piece of work for the collaborative groups and the Forest Service.”

The revised plan alternatives are also organized by 12 geographic areas that emphasize the way people experience and use the forest in different regions.

Among the 12 is the Pisgah Ledge geographic area, which includes some of the most popular recreation areas within Pisgah National Forest near Brevard.

Exploring the plan for what matters to you

David Whitmire, chair of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council, said he encourages people to visit the plan website and search for things within the proposed plan that matter to them.

Whitmire will be searching for “wildlife” – his primary interest is sportsmen’s access and improving habitat for game species, such as deer and ruffed grouse.

“Our first step is to introduce the plan to our membership to generate questions about what’s in it and how it impacts wildlife,” he said. He also encourages the public to be “honest about what you like and don’t like, but be patient and don’t let what you see shut doors.”

Whitmire and members of the FWCC will use the next 45 days as a period of “discovery” to sort through the details of the plan.

There’s plenty in the draft plan to take in. In all, the draft plan has 283 pages, and the draft environmental impact statement that analyzes each of the four alternatives is 608 pages.

Smalling said a potential rut in the next 90 days are “voices in the community that say ‘If not this, then nothing.’”

“I may find things I can’t support in the plan, but we all need to approach the plan with an open mind and figure out if something is important to me, how do I get us there without shutting down the process,” he said.

Evans also encourages people to provide feedback to the Forest Service on the “scale that you use the forest.”

“Each of the alternatives may look similar, but if you zoom in at the level that you experience the forest and the places you go, there will be differences,” he said.

Alternatives B, C, and D all contain the same level of Tier 1 and Tier 2 proposed activities, such as maintaining roads and improving old-growth conditions; but exactly where those activities occur within the forest may differ within each alternative.

Evans said the proposed plan demonstrates that the Forest Service has listened carefully to the collaborative groups involved in the revision process, such as the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council and the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership.

While individual comments matter, Evans said, the Forest Service looks at the quality of comments rather than sheer volume.

Seeking common ground

The value of the collaborative groups has been to bring stakeholders together, not only to advocate for their own values and uses, Evans said, but to demonstrate that conflicting values can be accommodated simultaneously.

An example is the development of an ecological approach to restoration that meshes a variety of seemingly conflicting values that desire a similar outcome.

“The Forest Service often hears from individual commenters that they want ‘this place’ protected, I want ‘this use’ maximized, or I want ‘this value’ maximized, but what [the Forest Service] wants to know is why the use or value matters, and if you want more wilderness, for example, can you also live with more timber harvesting?” Evans said.

“Trying to maximize everyone’s need just can’t be done through comment campaigns. It’s important to submit comments like that, but it’s not enough.”

Room to improve through feedback

Josh Kelly, MountainTrue’s public lands biologist, encourages members of the public to look at the strategies from various alternatives that they like best and comment on the options.

“The public has helped shape this draft and should continue to participate,” said Kelly, who pointed out that the best aspects of each alternative can ultimately be blended into a final plan.

While Kelly believes the “building blocks” of the plan appear strong, such as the tiered approach, he’s hoping to provide feedback that will add specificity to the plan in areas where he said it’s lacking.

For example, he said, the current management plan finalized in 1994 requires the use of an aerial device to harvest trees on slopes steeper than 40% to prevent erosion and avoid landslides.

The proposed plan removes that requirement and allows an agency specialist to make a decision depending on the site and conditions.

While that may be a relatively minor detail, Evans said Kelly’s concern highlights a central tension in this plan: the balance between “certainty” and “flexibility” in management.

Among the four alternatives, Alternative B offers the most management flexibility, while Alternative C provides more “certainty and less project flexibility.”

“The Forest Service is shifting its management toward big-picture ecological goals, such as restoring ecosystems and using fire, that require flexibility in management,” Evans.

“That’s admirable, but that discretion and flexibility can vary depending on the personnel and has the potential to be misapplied.”

Smalling of the N.C. Audubon Society will be presenting aspects of the plan to local chapters throughout the state to explain how the plan impacts birds.

“Many other groups are having events to show their membership what they see in the plan,” he said. “If folks have interest, they should take advantage of them to learn more.”

The public can also attend several meetings hosted by the Forest Service throughout the region to comment.

Following the public comment period, the Forest Service will use the feedback to develop a final draft of the plan that is scheduled to be finalized in late 2021.

CPP will host a forum to discuss the plan at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at UNC Asheville’s Reuter Center. For more information on the event or to reserve seats, click here.

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

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