A scene in the Pisgah National Forest. (Jack Igelman/Carolina Public Press)

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While the U.S. Forest Service’s long-awaited land management plan for Nantahala and Pisgah national forests in Western North Carolina, released in January, has generated plenty of discussion, one aspect that most stakeholders agree on is the need to ensure that the forest’s ecosystems are healthy and resilient.

Among the plan’s objectives is to accelerate the development of young and open forestland that is underrepresented and to increase the designated old-growth tree network.

Yet some forest advocates think the forest plan missed the mark, leaving some acres of the forest at risk — including sections of known old-growth stands — and places delineated as rare and exemplary habitat by the state of North Carolina’s Natural Heritage Program.

“The Forest Service intends to accomplish great things with the plan,” said Sam Evans, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. 

“They are talking about protecting old growth and restoring species composition and the characteristics of structural elements that are important to wildlife species. I don’t have complaints about the amount of (timber restoration) work the Forest Service plans to do. It’s the why, the where and the how.” 

Underway is a 60-day objection period that began Jan. 21. According to Evans, the SELC plans to file an objection to the plan. 

Ken Arney, the Atlanta-based regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Region, has 90 days to review and resolve each objection. The forester will issue a written response that could include additional direction for James Melonas, National Forests of North Carolina forest supervisor, to include in the final plan.

The Forest Service intends to approve the plan this summer.

“Interested parties” can request to participate in a resolution meeting. However, both “objectors” and interested parties must have been engaged in the planning process before its release.

Michelle Aldridge, a Forest Service planner, told Carolina Public Press that the forest plan forms the strategic vision for the landscape-scale approach to ecosystem-based restoration. The formation of projects in the future, such as trail building, road maintenance or timber harvesting, will be driven by the desired conditions and objectives identified in the plan.  

A 12-page reader’s guide explains the land management plan and the final environmental impact statement. However, the plan itself and the FEIS include hundreds of pages, dozens of charts, maps and highly technical information. 

Among the challenges of interpreting the management plan is grasping how land is allocated in the plan and how various portions of the landscape will be managed.

An organizational feature of the plan is the allocation of forest land into management area categories.

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Management areas, such as designated and recommended wilderness, are the most restrictive timber management categories. However, other categories, such as “ecological interest areas” and “the backcountry” allow timber activities but require consideration of site-specific context that may restrict some forms of harvesting, such as clear-cutting, but may allow selective harvesting or managed fire.

Evans said the “matrix” and “interface” categories — a total of 610,434 acres — are the “footprint” where “scheduled timber harvest will occur.” 

In all, Pisgah and Nantahala national forests encompass 1,043,636 acres.

Matrix is the largest general forest management area with an emphasis on active management. Interface contains the most concentrated recreation use in the forest, which includes heavily used roads.

Aldridge said the total amount of acres available for timber production in the plan, known as the “suitable base,” is 459,175 acres, though the agency does not plan to harvest 459,175 acres.

“Just because acres are calculated as suitable or are included in the matrix or interface management areas, doesn’t mean they’re going to be cut,” she said. 

“The land within the matrix area is managed to address all of its features, such as waterways, trails and scenic vistas or other places where timber harvest is not desirable.”

Aldridge said the acreage numbers presented in the forest plan are complicated and don’t necessarily reflect future activities.

“Focusing on analysis numbers instead of Forest Service planned actions introduces confusion and misunderstanding,” she said.

The annual objectives, according to Aldridge, provide a more realistic picture of the anticipated actions over the life of the plan. 

The Forest Service’s “tier 1” timber-cutting goal is 1,200 acres annually. With additional resources from partners, the “tier 2” goal is 3,200 acres annually, or up to 32,000 acres over the course of a decade.

Footprint or suitable base? 

The difference between the “footprint” and the “suitable base” is nearly 150,000 acres. 

The 150,000-acre subset of land in the footprint is excluded from timber harvesting activities since the land may include, for example, steep slopes, streams, established old-growth or other resources where timber management is not appropriate.

For example, the Ivy Knob section of Pisgah National Forest in Buncombe County is within the matrix and interface management areas.

“The problem is the footprint (in general, not necessarily Big Ivy) includes areas that we know are high conflict,” Evans said. 

“There are just no rules requiring that the rare, underrepresented or exemplary values found at the site-specific level be prioritized. So, we shouldn’t emphasize that kind of management in places where we know there are localized values like old-growth and rare habitats. 

“The point is to be able to implement the scheduled harvest program without running into complications and conflicts. (Stakeholders have) been clear all along that the footprint should not include places we know require the site-specific context in order to get it right.”

For instance, establishing a new road to access a timber project may impact a rare species or stand of old growth.

Evans told CPP that the landscape level priorities of timber volume, wildlife habitat and young forest creation predominate over localized values like old-growth or rare habitats.

In his view, the management area assignment matters “more than any other choice for planning,” with “no limits requiring harvest to be ecologically appropriate” for the rare, underrepresented or exemplary values found at the site-specific level.

“Stakeholders are asking the Forest Service to resolve some of the issues at the plan level so we can hit the ground running,” Evans said. 

“What we are seeing is the Forest Service deferring those issues to the future without any mechanism to ensure things are balanced at the plan level. Without that, we’re going to run into the same project-level conflicts that we’ve always had. 

“The Forest Service can say we can be careful at the project level and avoid these areas, but if that was their intention, they should have that at the front end and put them in a different management area.” 

The fine details of activities are developed during the planning stages of future projects. 

District rangers have the authority to approve or change projects. 

Josh Kelly, MountainTrue’s public lands biologist, said aspects of the plan are vague and open to interpretation. 

“The planning process offered the Forest Service the chance to make some big decisions at the plan level to make projects more efficient,” Kelly said. 

“That would help everyone whether you’re interested in timber harvesting, young forest, water quality or recreation access. They have punted everything to the project level. A small part of the forest is going to cause the most problems. The FS valued the flexibility and discretion of their own employees over public input.”

The Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership, a collaborative organization representing a range of forest interests, submitted maps during the planning process that included a smaller footprint and suitable base than the allocation proposed by the Forest Service.

The partnership recommended a 360,000-acre suitable base with a 460,000-acre management footprint. The group’s recommendation included 1,500 acres per year of scheduled timber harvest and another 1,500 acres of unscheduled targeted timber restoration.

There is potential, Kelly said, that project planning won’t go well and maintain the status quo in which conflict is common.

“My time and the time of folks on the other side of an issue will be wasted arguing about the 10% or 20% of land in projects that include places that would be harmed by logging,” he said.

Flexible management 

“Timber harvests are not random acts,” Aldridge said. “They are part of carefully designed silvicultural prescriptions for restoring healthy forests.”

At the onset of developing a project, an interdisciplinary team of specialists will work with partners and the public to develop projects using in-depth, up-to-date, local information.

“We need more young and open forest, which requires cutting some trees,” she said. 

“We also need more very old forest, and so we’ve set some areas aside where we won’t be cutting trees. Restoring healthy forests will help us build resiliency in the face of insects, disease and climate change. The forests are a dynamic system, and we need flexibility for an adaptive approach.”

Lang Hornthal of Ecoforesters agrees with the need for flexibility in forestry.

“The approach of locking up anything that has value to a certain group is not practical,” he said. 

“Forestry is a lesson in adaptive management. You make the best decisions based on the outcomes you want to see and watch over time. You have to monitor it and adjust and adapt.” 

He is most concerned about a fragile trust between the agency and public land advocates.

“(Projects) are already contentious because of the lack of trust on past projects,” he said. “Viewed through that lens, if we keep doing projects like we have in the past, we’re going to have problems. But that’s the point of the plan, that we won’t keep doing projects like we have in the past.”

Hornthal said the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership is committed to working with the Forest Service on the project level.

Kelly, however, said that he doesn’t think the plan prioritizes the collaborative outcome well enough. There’s plenty of language about collaboration, he said, but not enough in the plan to make it a reality. 

For instance, Kelly identified the need for more monitoring “triggers” to ensure that once the plan achieves a Tier 1 plan goal, such as road maintenance, this doesn’t result in damage to another plan goal, such as water quality.

Hornthal said it’s a reasonable argument that giving rangers discretion is a concern: “They have to come through at the project level.” 

If not, he said, “some people will lose hope in collaboration.” 

Timber industry

Orrin Goure, a forester with Columbia Forest Products headquartered in Greensboro, said his company’s primary input is yellow poplar.

Columbia is North America’s largest producer of hardwood veneer and plywood in the U.S. 

“The Forest Service has a multiple-use mandate, and timber production is part of that,” he said. “It’s not to say our industry is more important than anyone else, but many local economies rely on the income flow.”

Goure and others in the forest products industry are concerned by what they view as a “chipping away” of the suitable base that the industry relies on. 

“It’s important the suitable base remains as large as it can be,” he said, to allow the Forest Service to develop economically feasible commercial timber projects. For example, the cost of extracting timber, including labor, road construction and transportation may exceed the lumber’s value. 

Evidence of this imbalance is the recent Twelve Mile Project in Pisgah National Forest in Haywood County, which received no bids from the industry.

“There’s a difference between the suitable base and what is actually operable — it’s either too rough, steep, rocky or costly to be logged,” he said.

Nevertheless, Goure said the conservation community and the timber industry are aligned. 

“Both of us want more timber restoration, and the commercial industry is the most cost-effective tool of restoration,” he said. According to Goure, managed fire is costly and has a small window of opportunity only in the spring and fall.

He understands, however, the concerns of the environmental community.

“Addressing the place-based concerns is really important,” Goure said. “There’s room to (manage for other values) and active forest management. They can happen together. 

“I think the Forest Service could trade acres here and there to adjust the mapping and alleviate some of the concerns involving existing old-growth or exceptional state natural heritage areas without diminishing the suitable base.”

David Whitmire of Rosman has been a leading voice during the planning process that has advocated for more active management of forests to restore wildlife habitat.

In the past, “we’ve been riding the coattails of the commercial industry to get our wildlife and game habitat,” he said. “But we have to look at a whole new way to restore the forest.”

He thinks the plan is fair and balanced in regard to preservation and conservation values. 

While the lower end of the plan’s restoration goals is inadequate in his opinion, he has faith the agency will move past that with the support of additional resources from other agencies, such as the state’s Wildlife Resources Commission and private organizations, such as the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council.

Whitmire is concerned that “moving lines on a map may impact the footprint we have now” and limit the ability to restore habitat for game, birds and other wildlife. 

Everyone, however, agrees that less conflict at the project level is desirable.

“There is a more elegant solution (than conflict),” said American Whitewater’s Kevin Colburn, “but if you draw a map that includes chunks of land that people have strong feelings about, it won’t go well for the people, the land or the agency.”

Colburn said the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership and other stakeholders offered maps and ideas to avoid conflict that the Forest Service didn’t take.

“They missed some opportunities to make it easier to do good projects,” he said. 

“It’s not a problem of there not being enough forest or enough support for active management. It’s really a question of where it happens.”

Colburn, however, understands that the Forest Service is not just a decision-maker but also a stakeholder.

“Their employees and experts have their own range of experiences on the landscape and views about the best ways to go about their jobs,” he said.

Regardless of the final plan and the allocation of acreage, Colburn is hopeful successful timber restoration projects will be developed. 

“Lots of people will work to make sure that happens regardless of what the plan looks like,” he said. 

“Good projects can come up. They did under the old plan, and they could under the new one.”

Correction and clarification: The U.S. Forest Service released a final environmental impact statement, also known as the FEIS, along with its management plan for the two Western North Carolina national forests in January. The FEIS was identified by the wrong name in the article as it initially appeared. The article also initially included a graphic showing the relationship between the suitable and unsuitable acreage areas for timber harvesting that was mathematically correct but could have given a false impression about the relationship between the two as a result of the size of shaded areas. so that graphic has been removed to avoid confusion.

Jack Igelman

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