View from Sam Knob in the Pisgah National Forest in southern Haywood County, one of two Western North Carolina national forests included in the ongoing management plan revision by the U.S. Forest Service. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

With the mandated public comment period on a proposed plan to manage Western North Carolina’s national forests coming to an end, two influential collaborative groups that played a key role in drafting the plan have weighed in with their views, which could carry substantial weight with the U.S. Forest Service as it fleshes out the final plan.

Input and comments from the two groups, the Nantahala Pisgah Forest Partnership and the Stakeholders Forum for the Nantahala and Pisgah Plan Revision, have been a crucial building block in the formation of the proposed Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests Land Management Plan.

The groups were formed by networks of organizations made up of horseback riders, hunters, climbers, timber companies and wilderness lovers, whose missions and values are deeply tied to the public forests of Western North Carolina.

Although the membership of the Stakeholders Forum and Partnership was nearly identical, the final comments to the Forest Service after several years of deliberation were not.

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Differing feedback from similar groups

In February, more than four decades after legislation was enacted that stipulated that the public be engaged in national forests planning and nearly a decade after the launch of the current planning process, the Forest Service unveiled the proposed plan and its accompanying draft environmental impact statement.

A required three-month public comment period was extended due to the COVID-19 pandemic and concluded June 29. The Forest Service’s final plan is due in late 2021 and will guide how the forests are managed for decades to come.

Kevin Colburn of American Whitewater participated in both the Stakeholders Forum and the Partnership. His organization’s interest in the forest plan is for more access for paddlers and permanent protection for precious rivers and streams under the National Wild and Scenic River System.

The Partnership, Colburn said, was able to achieve a higher level of agreement than the Stakeholders Forum. However, the ability of the Stakeholders Forum “to come together around a universal set of consensus recommendations wasn’t a primary goal to begin with,” he said. 

The Stakeholders Forum delivered a 14-page document as comments that identified areas of agreement and disagreement among its membership of 24 organizations.

The Partnership delivered a 107-page document with specific recommendations to alter or enhance the proposed forest plan alternatives.

Despite the different outputs, both groups found consensus on one matter — the future of Western North Carolina’s national forests depends on doing more with less and minimizing conflict among competing interests.

Ben Prater of Defenders of Wildlife, who participated in both collaboratives, said a key difference between the two collaborative efforts is how they were formed.

The Stakeholders Forum was sanctioned in 2015 by the Forest Service and facilitated by the National Forest Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Montana. The Partnership was a grassroots effort originally assembled by The Wilderness Society in 2013.

“Because (the Partnership) was initially led by environmental groups, it put up a wall for some interests,” Prater said. For example, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council, a group of local hunters and fisherman, and the Ruffed Grouse Society participated in the Stakeholders Forum, but not the Partnership.

David Whitmire, owner of Headwaters Outfitters in the mountain community of Rosman, represented the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council on the Stakeholders Forum.

The FWCC’s decision to opt out of the Partnership, Whitmire said, was logistical, and attending meetings for just one collaborative was challenging for a group of volunteers. In addition, he said, the Forest Service’s sponsorship of the Stakeholders Forum was a key factor in the decision.

“I’ve been a part of many conservation efforts, but this is by far one of the biggest. It’s tough to hold people’s interest and commitments for such a long period of time,” he said, adding that the FWCC is open to participating more formally in the Partnership in the future. 

Colburn agreed with Whitmire and said, “Having two collaboratives with nearly identical membership was probably unnecessary.”

Still, the broader range of participation may have hampered the ability to achieve consensus on a range of issues affecting the forests.

Karen DiBari of the National Forest Foundation, who facilitated the Stakeholder Forum, said members “definitely had their disagreements but worked really hard to generate ideas and strategies to address several areas of conflict, which are represented (in their comments).”

“Over time, forum members became much more skilled at communicating their interests while also acknowledging the interests of others. I think everyone realized through the Stakeholders Forum that collaboration is a process, not an endpoint.” DiBari said.

What were the issues?

According to the comments of the Stakeholders Forum, the key issues are forestry and restoration, special designations, sustainable recreation and wildlife.  

While the members agreed on “general values” associated with those issues, they disagreed on the “mechanisms” to achieve a range of conservation, recreational and economic objectives.

“The elephant in the room was the issue of wilderness,” Prater said.

Some members were concerned that the proposed plan may open land for timber harvesting that is also suitable for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Alternatively, other members were concerned about overly restricting the ability to harvest trees for restoration or economic purposes.

According to the comments submitted by the Stakeholders Forum, “some members strongly support wilderness recommendations; some are willing to live with wilderness recommendations; and some are not supportive of wilderness recommendations.”

Prater said the Stakeholders Forum fell short on specific recommendations, “but we identified fertile ground for compromise. It’s a process. We admitted to areas that we couldn’t reach agreement that are too volatile or controversial, but acknowledged they exist.”

Lang Hornthal of EcoForesters, a nonprofit forestry organization based in Asheville and a member of both collaboratives, said the Stakeholders Forum’s final comments also helped explain why some interests disagree.

“The narrative on forest planning is that the public hears just one side of the debate within the lens of what’s important to them, whether that’s the need for more wilderness or more active forest management,” Hornthal said. “The Stakeholders Forum served the purpose of helping the Forest Service better understand where conflict lies.”

Whitmire said one barrier to reaching consensus was that many of the participants had constituents to serve, himself included.

“I didn’t want to let sportsmen down,” he said. “Hunters and fishermen are really in tune with the forest, and sportsmen felt like we had a story to tell.”

What was beneficial, he said, was forming working relationships with other interests and demonstrating to the Forest Service what we “can agree on and don’t agree on.”

For example, members did not agree with how to approach old growth in the plan and that “there is no singular definition for ‘old growth’ that is broadly agreed upon across stakeholders,” and there was disagreement regarding the amount of inventoried old growth in the forests.

While the Stakeholders Forum was not as specific as the Partnership’s recommendations, members said the dialogue that occurred over several years was meaningful, especially for sportsmen, whose central concern was that game populations are suffering due to aging forests.

Whitmire said the proposed plan’s alternatives show that the Forest Service listened to the request for more flexibility among forest managers to conduct restoration projects that will, for example, create a mixed-age forest with young trees, shrubs and grasses that are lacking.

The comments to the Forest Service focused on expanding the “matrix” designation footprint throughout the forests. The designation is the largest general forest management area that allows the most flexibility for active management in the forest, such as tree thinning and harvesting.

Colburn of AW was also satisfied with some of the plan specifics.

Among the areas that Colburn is pleased about in the plan are streams recommended for National Wild and Scenic River status, including the West Fork of the Pigeon, Santeetlah Creek, Thompson Creek and the South Toe River.

Recommendations for those streams would convey protection for the rivers for the life of the plan and make them candidates for permanent protection. Permanent status requires an act of Congress and the president’s signature.

“It’s a great outcome that’s really important for anglers and paddlers,” Colburn said. “Going into the plan, more Wild and Scenic eligibility and the acknowledgment that recreation is really important in the management of the forests. By and large, recreation is woven throughout the plan.”

However, Colburn wants more resources for recreation and a clearer vision from the Forest Service around allocating resources for recreational activities throughout the forest.

“The easiest thing for the Forest Service is to limit recreational use in places where there is perceived conflict,” he said.

The potential for conflict, he said, surfaced often throughout the collaborative process of both the Partnership and the Stakeholders Forum.

“The big difference was that some things weren’t on the table in the Stakeholders Forum,” said Colburn. “Decisions around designated areas and wilderness and specificity about how pieces of land should be managed. That was beyond the ability of the Stakeholders Forum to coalesce around.”

Partnership finds consensus on forests

In all, over 30 organizations that are part of the Partnership agreed on 12 “integrated recommendations” for the final plan that were submitted within a 107-page document to the Forest Service.

“The Partnership’s approach was to figure out how the Forest Service can accomplish as much of the restoration and recreation goals as possible. We’re looking for ways to strengthen this notion that the Forest Service can get more done if we work together,” Hornthal said.

“Seven years of work has gone into this from groups and people who are deeply invested in providing manpower and resources to get more accomplished.”

Even though the proposed forest plan does not address specific projects within the forest, Hornthal said the Partnership’s focus is to give “clear guidance to district rangers” at the project level.

For example, he said, the Forest Service should focus future projects in noncontroversial areas of the forests. Specifically, it should tread carefully in places where there is old-growth forest or areas that are recognized in the state Natural Heritage Program for their extraordinary biodiversity.

A case in point is the controversial Buck Project decision to harvest trees and restore forest in Clay County in Nantahala National Forest.

The decision, made in June, infuriated environmentalists, who said the project will harvest trees in sensitive areas of the forest that contain old growth and unique plant and animal species.

“In our viewpoint, it’s not that complicated,” he said. “If there is uncertainty around areas with old growth or unique species, then we need to tread lightly and err on the side of doing less.”

Among the Partnership’s comments on the proposed plan is a clearer description of how old-growth stands are identified at the project level. While a set of guidelines exists, Hornthall said their interpretation varies.

That’s a concern for Hornthall in that it continues a historical trend.

“Because of history and disagreements in the past, there is a lack of trust that the plan will be implemented properly on the project level,” Hornthal said.  

“We are looking for language (in the final plan) that stresses the importance of being aware” of places where there is potential conflict.

What has pleased Hornthal about the proposed plan to address future conflict is a “two-tiered” approach to achieving forestwide goals, an idea that spawned from the collaborative process. The first tier identifies activities the Forest Service has the budget and resources to accomplish, while the second tier outlines what the agency can accomplish with the help of partners.

Specific “triggers” indicate when the agency can move from Tier 1 to Tier 2 for a specific plan objective. Measuring and defining triggers isn’t straightforward. For instance, will measures of forest restoration goals include a broad acreage objective, or should it be measured in categories, such as pine or oak? 

Indeed, some members of the Stakeholders Forum are uneasy with the tiered approach. One challenge of the tiered goal approach is ensuring that the plan doesn’t emphasize one interest at the expense of another.

For example, if the plan sets an objective to increase the footprint of timber harvest and another objective is to maintain more miles of road, then the Forest Service shouldn’t move to a Tier 2 goal for timber harvest without making progress toward better-maintained roads.

The Stakeholders Forum agreed to the two-tiered approach in concept, but its comments addressed concerns that opposing goals may undermine each other and questioned how the Tier 1 and Tier 2 levels were established in the proposed plan.

Roads and recreation in forests

One example of a tiered goal in an area in which Forest Service resources are stretched is a lengthy backlog of road maintenance. A proposed Tier 1 goal is to maintain 280 miles of road to standard annually by performing maintenance or decommissioning unneeded roads.

The Tier 2 goal is to reduce the maintenance backlog by an additional 10% annually.

A challenge of the plan is to provide guidance on hard choices about which roads, for example, to decommission or repurpose as trails.

Sediment from degraded roads impacts water quality and stream habitat. In addition, a dysfunctional road system limits access to potential forest restoration project sites and recreational resources, such as trout streams and trails.

“There is a real need to redistribute recreation around the forest in places that have too much to places that don’t have enough in communities that would love tourism,” Colburn said.

While some communities, such as Brevard in Transylvania County, have established a sustainable recreational economy in Pisgah National Forest, more remote counties, such as Graham County, two hours southwest of Asheville, have lagged behind.

Sophia Paulos, the Graham County economic development director who participated in the Partnership, said that recreation is an important element of the future economic mix of rural counties and may ease tensions around competing interests that are ripe for conflict, such as the timber industry and recreation groups.

“Timber will always be a part of Graham County and part of the culture here,” she said, but conflict around selecting future sites for timber production has stalled the industry. She’s confident that the plan has laid the groundwork for addressing conflict and lifting both timber production and recreation-based tourism to new levels in the rural county.

“I think the future plan will allow us to see an increase in timber projects that work for everyone at places that have restoration needs and there is no conflict,” she said. “By working together and going over maps, we were able to figure out where we can harvest trees and mitigate conflict.”

Both the Partnership and Stakeholders Forum agree that developing sustainable economies in rural communities with large portions of national forest is vital to implementing a successful plan over the next two decades.

The Partnership recommends that the Forest Service measure the economic returns on all activities within the forest, including timber harvesting, recreation, and stewardship efforts. 

“The Forest Service has been a great partner for Graham County, which has not been the case in the past,” Paulos said. “What is refreshing is that it’s evident from the plan proposal that they are hearing us.”

Involvement in the revision process, she said, has created a tone in Graham County where seemingly opposing interests can work together. For example, wilderness interests have earned the support of county leaders and the other way around.

“We came to a place where we agree that if we have our needs met, then we will also support your needs,” she said.

That give-and-take underscores the reality that the future stewardship of Pisgah and Nantahala forests will not rest solely on the shoulders of a century-old federal government agency but will be aided by a network of organizations that may persist after the plan is finalized, including the Partnership.

“It has always been an endgame for the Partnership to get to implementation of the plan and help the Forest Service do good work,” Hornthal said.

The Stakeholders Forum, according to DiBari, does not have a work plan now that the comment period is over.

“The Forum doesn’t have plans to exist as a group beyond the planning process,” she said. “The hope and expectation is that moving forward, people will lean into the working relationships they have built across interests.”

Over the next several months, the Forest Service will review comments and adapt the proposed plan and environmental impact statement. A final proposed plan is expected in late 2021.

Jack Igelman

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