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After nearly a decade, the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest Plan, which will set 20-year policies focused on managing over 1 million acres within the two forests, is nearing completion.
James Melonas, supervisor of National Forests in North Carolina, said the agency is in the final stages of the plan development, which may take several months.
The forest planning process launched in late 2012. New federal forest planning rules and other federal regulations guide the process and were intended to span a three- to five-year period.
However, navigating the new rules amid substantial public participation and the pandemic has prolonged the planning process. In February 2020, the U.S. Forest Service released a proposed land management plan with four alternatives, each with a slightly different set of conditions.
“Right now, we are coordinating with other agencies and finalizing some of the analysis based on public comments” received following the release of the draft plan, he said.
As the work to finalize the plan continues, collaborative groups and organizations throughout Western North Carolina with a stake in the management of public forests are shaping projects within national forest boundaries, promising expanded recreational opportunities and restored forest habitats and landscapes.
The function of the plan is to provide a blueprint for the overarching strategy and goals for the future of the forest, U.S. Forest Service planner Michelle Aldridge said, however, it’s on the project level where the agency executes specific actions.
For example, improving wildlife habitat, expanding sustainable recreation opportunities and promoting shared stewardship are priorities within the proposed plan. Specific projects identify the place and the tools and actions that will be used, such as prescribed fire, timber harvesting or stream restoration. Projects also depend on forming partnerships with private organizations.
Each project is proposed, analyzed and carried out within the framework of the forest plan.
While each project must be consistent with the forest plan, she said, projects happening now are being developed with a lens toward the tenets of the revised plan.
Josh Kelly, a biologist at MountainTrue and member of the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership, said that “doing actual work on the ground is the next step” for many of the organizations who have been immersed in the planning process.
“(The planning process) was long and difficult, but we want to work on making the plan’s vision a reality,” Kelly said.
The partnership was formed in 2014 to develop a collaborative group from a range of national forest stakeholders, including local governments, conservation organizations and the forest product industry, among others, to influence the development of the management plan.
Within the last year, Kelly said, a subcommittee was formed to examine future and current habitat and forest restoration projects, such as the controversial Crossover Project in Nantahala National Forest.
The project proposed 1,378 acres of “commercial regeneration treatments” in Graham and Cherokee counties designed to improve or maintain the health of the forest ecosystem.
The project will include timber harvesting, temporary road construction, watershed improvement, prescribed burning and wildlife habitat improvement.
It was a “stress test” for the commitment of the partnership, Kelly said.
“It was a scary moment when Crossover came out because I wasn’t sure if we would stick together through a project that looked favorable to some interests and so damaging to others,” he said.
While most agree that forest restoration is needed throughout Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, some of the areas proposed were in high-value conservation areas, such as old-growth forest stands and exceptional natural heritage areas, and places the partnership agreed to manage as backcountry.
A letter from the partnership to the Forest Service advised removing 335 acres of timber harvest to reduce the potential for conflict over the project. A decision by the Forest Service on the project is forthcoming.
Among the signers of the letter was forester Orrin Goure of Columbia Forest Products and a member of the partnership’s leadership team.
Goure said some Forest Service projects developed in the past are not economically viable for timber companies due to costs of extraction or the value of the lumber.
He envisions the partnership will support the Forest Service in developing future projects that maximize benefits and moderate contention. From his point of view, removing controversial areas will allow projects to move faster.
During the plan revision process, Goure said that the partnership identified 61,000 acres suitable for consideration for timber extraction in Nantahala and Pisgah national forests.
“Engaging stakeholders is what needs to happen to have projects that are supported and are not causing controversy,” he said. “(The timber products industry) recognizes that everyone in their own silos and not communicating isn’t a practical way of managing public lands.”
Working project by project with the Forest Service “will best serve the stakeholders in the community and help the agency move forward and carry out the future forest plan,” he said.
Finding funding and support
Among the biggest challenges facing the Forest Service beyond the plan is tapping into the resources and funding to execute costly projects.
Aldridge said Tier 2 goals developed in the draft plan identify “stretch” targets that outline what the Forest Service can accomplish with the help of partners.
David Whitmire, chair of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council, said his grassroots group of sportsmen and sportswomen is prepared to help execute projects on the ground.
On Oct. 24, the FWCC and the nonprofit Pisgah Conservancy held a fundraiser to support the Courthouse Creek Wildlife Field Project in Transylvania County.
They aim to raise $50,000 and provide volunteers to clear a 3-acre tract that will be maintained as a field planted with grass and forb, which is an essential landscape for a range of wildlife species. The project is part of the national forest’s Courthouse Creek Project and is supported by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
Often, said Whitmire, actions within projects go unfulfilled due to a lack of funding or resources.
“Our model is to look at what’s already been designed and see what we can do to help benefit wildlife,” said Whitmire.
The FWCC has established groups of hunters and anglers in each ranger district of the national forest to communicate with the Forest Service about current and future projects and actions.
“Local folks know so much about the landscape and what’s happening on the ground,” he said. “I think that local knowledge is our strength and what the FWCC brought to the table during the planning process.”
Melonas said having strong partner support is critical, and he cited two successful projects driven by outside organizations: an ambitious, community-driven trail project near Old Fort and a culvert replacement project to facilitate species migration spearheaded by Trout Unlimited that withstood intense flooding from Tropical Storm Fred.
Future support, he said, will also come from other well-established Forest Service partners, such as the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, local governments and economic development commissions, which underscore, said Melonas, “how important the forests are for recreation and how much they are integrated into the region’s economic vitality.”
“It’s really important to have additional capacity,” he said. “There is so much work to do across the forest.”
Melonas will select one of four proposed management alternatives, and then individuals who provided comments previously have standing to object to the proposed plan and environmental impact statement during a 60-day period.
The Forest Service then has a 90-day response period to seek resolution to public objections.
According to Aldridge, it’s not uncommon to field objections at this stage of the planning process.
“We feel that we’ve done an excellent job of creating a plan that meets all of the different needs of the forest community,” she said. “The objection period is an opportunity to check in with folks one last time before a decision is made.”
Aldridge said that the regional forester in Atlanta, rather than the North Carolina planning team, will oversee the objection process.
Clarification: The Courthouse Creek Project in Transylvania County aims in part to maintain a 3-acre tract planted with grass and forb. The article was updated on Nov. 3 to describe this aspect of the project more precisely.