Nantahala Buck
The Nantahala River flows throw the Nantahala National Forest near the Cherokee and Macon County line, seen here in January 2019. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press.

A project to restore forests and streams in Nantahala National Forest has drawn the ire of conservationists and environmentalists who said the U.S. Forest Service decision ignores public comment.

Plans for the Buck Project, finalized May 22, included timber harvests on 795 acres of public forest land spread on 30 sites throughout a 20,638-acre project area.

The project is in the Tusquitee Ranger District in southeastern Clay County roughly 100 miles southwest of Asheville. The restoration project also includes construction of 8.9 miles of temporary roads and 17 stream improvement projects.

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The project may begin later this year and last five to seven years.

Southern Environmental Law Center Senior Attorney Amelia Burnette said the project will occur in sensitive areas of the forest with steep slopes containing old-growth trees, headwaters, unique ecosystems, and rare plants and animals.

“This decision ignores public input and support for an alternative proposal that eliminated the riskiest logging and protected clear-running and popular trout streams and old, biologically rich forests,” she said.

The Buck Project decision also comes during a pivotal phase of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests land management plan revision that will oversee the management of all federal forest land in Western North Carolina for the next two decades. The U.S. Forest Service released its proposed plan for the two forests in February. A public comment period is underway and will conclude in June, and the final management scheme will be selected in 2021.

The focus of the Buck Project is to replace aging trees to make room for young trees to grow. According to the Forest Service, roughly 70% of trees in the project area are over 81 years old, and 0.5% of the project area includes trees less that are less than 10 years old.

“The ultimate goal of the Buck Project and all our work on the district is a healthy, diverse forest that sustains wildlife,” said Tusquitee District Ranger Andy Gaston.

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Objections in different directions when Buck Project proposed

The Forest Service released a draft decision for the Buck Project in August 2019. Following the decision, the agency received three public objections.

One was filed by the SELC on behalf of MountainTrue, The Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Appalachian Voices and the Sierra Club.

Among the SELC’s concerns are proposed stands and temporary roads within the Chunky Gal and Boteler Peak areas of the forest that are adjacent to the Southern Nantahala Wilderness Area, according to Hugh Irwin of The Wilderness Society who said the area has been a focus of the society for decades because of its unique ecological value.

Within the project area are three stands that are being considered for wilderness recommendation, the highest form of U.S. land protection, in one of the management alternatives of the ongoing Nantahala-Pisgah land management plan revision. Another six stands are recommended for other protective management designations in the proposed plan.

Irwin said the project area will degrade those areas by building roads that threaten streams and create corridors for invasive species as well as impacting its remote characteristics.

“We feel that some values, like the creation of young forest, are being prioritized over other values like preservation of old forest and habitat for rare plant species, salamanders and wilderness characteristics,” Irwin said.

A second objection was filed by Jim Gray of Macon County and a member of the Ruffed Grouse Society. He said the Forest Service’s preliminary decision in August didn’t do enough to improve forests for wildlife, in particular, ruffed grouse, the golden-winged warbler and other animal species that require early successional habitat consisting of young trees, shrubs and grasses.

Gray supported his objection with a survey conducted by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. The commission identified the ruffed grouse, a popular game bird, as a “species of greatest conservation need” in their 2015 wildlife management plan.

An objection was also filed by Rob Peck, chairman of the Clay County Board of Commissioners, who said that the Forest Service is not doing enough to create wildlife habitat. The objection also cited the need to create roads to maintain and prevent forest fires, and said the Forest Service should do more to create jobs and business opportunities for Clay County citizens.

Decision rejected proposals to slow or split Buck Project

On Nov. 8, the Forest Service met with objectors. The agency said the final decision in May incorporates changes resulting from the meeting, including a commitment to decommission temporary roads after the project is completed, implement practices to minimize the spread of invasive species and analyze the impact on wilderness characteristics in the Boteler and Chunky Gal areas.

In addition, the Forest Service will not proceed in the three project areas recommended for wilderness in the final plan until the proposed Pisgah-Nantahala forest plan is finalized.

Despite the delay, Irwin said, the decision to even consider harvesting in the three units recommended for wilderness in the proposed plan is a concern.

“The (Forest Service says) we are considering it for wilderness recommendation, but by the way, ‘We are doing a timber project in the area.’” Irwin added the decision conveys bias by the Forest Service in consideration of future management of those areas. “At the very least, it sends a mixed message to the public.”

Stepherson Moffat, National Environmental Policy Act planning team leader of Nantahala National Forest, said the Forest Service made the Buck decision in accordance with the current forest plan, which allows for timber harvest in those areas.

“In regards to impacts of the Buck Project on potential future management of the area, timber harvest and temporary road construction would affect the naturalness of the areas in their immediate vicinity but would not affect consideration of the overall areas for recommended wilderness now or in the future,” he said.

Burnette said the SELC suggested that the Forest Service break the project into two phases. A first phase would implement restoration on 500 acres, and a second 300-acre phase to be planned after the plan revision is complete in 2021.

The proposal was considered, Moffat said, but the agency chose to proceed with clarifications that resulted from the objection review process.

David Reid of the N.C. chapter of the Sierra Club said the timing and outcome of the decision are very disappointing.

“We think the Buck decision is a missed opportunity for the Forest Service to demonstrate how they will listen to public concerns in the future,” he said.

“It would have been easy to have selected a more scaled-back alternative, which still accomplished some of the management objectives, yet minimized stakeholder friction.”

Josh Kelly of MountainTrue also questioned the timing of the release of the decision on Friday of Memorial Day weekend.

“The timing seemed intended to make it smell like roses and hope that nobody noticed,” Kelly said. “Why they would not want the most broadly supported alternative is mystifying to me. It’s clear the public is concerned, and to ignore them doesn’t invite greater public support in the future.”

Gray is also not satisfied with the final decision, however, “it is by far the best alternative that was on the table,” he said.

“It provides key high-altitude wildlife habitat that is critical for golden winged warblers, ruffed grouse and other species.”

He added that creating new temporary roads will improve access to early successional habitat for hunters in which mobility is an issue.

“What a shame it would be to lose this iconic bird (ruffed grouse) — especially when we know how to conserve it,” he said.

“I sincerely hope environmental organizations can accept a thoroughly vetted decision and move on. The critters in the forest need the habitat that this project will provide.”

Moffat said the decision was released as soon as it was completed and that the environmental analysis for the Buck Project followed a deliberative, science-based approach with input from a wide spectrum of stakeholders. The National Environmental Protection Act requires the Forest Service to solicit public comments.

Decision discounted public comments viewed as repetitive

Burnette said that the Buck Project decision ignored the majority of public comments and that the project does not have broad support.

In all, according to documents obtained by the SELC, the Forest Service received 670 comments; 85% of the comments, she said, favored different alternatives that would impact fewer acres in the forest, and 5% of the comments favored no timber harvesting.

Moffat said that over 90% of the comments received were generated by MountainTrue’s “action alert,” which encouraged its members to support the alternative favored by the SELC and were copied from an online template hosted on MountainTrue’s website.

“Instead of focusing on the volume of comments about a proposed action, we focus on the detailed information within each comment,” he said. “We don’t count the number of comments on each individual topic or concern because that could be misleading.

“For example, how should each response be counted? Does a comment from one individual get counted once, but an organization’s or community’s comment gets counted multiple times based on the number of members or residents?”

Moffat added that public comments should not be viewed as a voting process and said that “a number of organizations and individuals were in favor of creating up to 2,000 acres of early successional habitat.”

I Heart Pisgah co-organizer Will Harlan said the format of public comments should not matter.

“Disregarding people’s input because of the format of their comment is unethical, un-American and unbelievably insulting to the public,” Harlan told CPP.

“If an overwhelming majority of people share a position on the Buck Project, that absolutely matters. Pretending that it doesn’t matter — and then not counting all of the people who took the time to share their views — is not how public lands agencies should operate.”

Moffat said no comments are ever discarded, and all are reviewed and that other forms of public comment are considered.

“We refined this project based on dialogue with partners, other governments, federally recognized tribes, scientists and interested citizen groups, and also at public meetings,” he said. “The input we received through that dialogue and collaboration was integral to shaping the project.”

Nevertheless, Harlan said several organizations, including MountainTrue, have studied the area “for years” to provide scientifically accurate information.

“Everyday people should be able to rely on this expertise in submitting their comments, especially since the Forest Service says they only want specific, detailed information,” said Harlan.

“It’s unfair to require everyone who wants to comment on a proposal to be an expert on forest policy. Individuals who care about their forests should be able to comment using expert analysis from organizations, and their voices should be heard.”

Moffat said he understands that the decision does not fully satisfy all public requests.

“The Forest Service is tasked with utilizing the best available science to manage the national forests to conserve resources for current and future generations,” said Moffat.

“That often requires us to strike a balance between multiple and often conflicting public demands.”

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