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Earlier this month, forest supervisor James Melonas, in a blue blazer and wearing black-rimmed glasses, sat with his legs crossed behind a table with antlers, the skeleton of a bird, long wooden arrows and a large microphone on it. Next to him sat the khaki-clad David Whitmire, owner of Headwaters Outfitters in Rosman, arms folded in front of him, white beard and matching cap, speaking to a small group of hunters and anglers in Transylvania County. It was WNC Wildlife Day, an annual event held to convene the local hunting community and marking the end of big-game hunting season in Western North Carolina.
Melonas had been invited to speak on the new Nantahala and Pisgah national forest plan for land management, and Whitmire was the interviewer for an event that was livestreamed. The plan had been developed over the past 10 years, and Melonas was there to discuss it and the management of area wildlife for the next 20 years and beyond. While the plan had not yet been finalized, the Forest Service wrote in a press release that the plan was expected to be signed by the end of January.
The signed plan would include the U.S. Forest Service’s response to objections to the plan, a process that had taken months and was the final step before its completion. The last forest plan for Western North Carolina’s national forests was released in 1987 and amended in 1994.
To many groups the completion of the process was important.
The Forest Service releases a final response to the objections
On Jan.19, the Forest Service released a final response to the objections to the Final Environmental Impact Statement and Draft Record of Decision for the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests Revised Land Management Plan.
The Final Response to Objection Issues and Instructions, a 445-page document, took longer than expected. John Lint, the reviewing officer, said the response to objections took longer because of the complexity of the plan which included the following:
- In all, the agency responded to 104 “issues” raised by the public.
- The Forest Service bundled the issues into 24 categories, such as, “wilderness,” “recreation,” “climate change,” “botany,” “old-growth network” and “timber.”
- The response to the objections includes a summary of each issue and a response from the Forest Service.
- At the end of each response, there may be instructions, such as additions or corrections, that must be addressed prior to the final decision and approval of the plan.
- Following any addition or corrections to the plan, Melonas will finalize the plan with his signature. The plan will take effect 30 days following his signature and guide the management of the forest for the next two decades. That means the plan may be finalized by early March.
Responses to the final step
The decadeslong planning process was characterized by public engagement over delicate issues, such as land protection and timber cutting. The forest planning process was often clouded by concerns of where future timber management and restoration projects will occur once the plan is complete. Evidence of concerns with the plan are the thousands of objection comments and letters generated by the public.
Some people are excited about the release of the plan, not just because it signals the completion of the objection process, but also because it could lead to changes for many decades to come.
Biologist Josh Kelly of MountainTrue, however, said he is concerned that the plan will maintain the “status quo” and lacks sufficient direction in how to execute forest restoration and timber management projects. This makes it more challenging to find broad consensus among forest users and advocates, which makes planning and executing projects more time consuming and challenging for the Forest Service and partner organizations.
Kelly said it’s unclear if the objection instructions will offer substantive changes to the final plan. “We’ll see when the final plan comes out.” Whatever the outcome, Kelly said his organization “is 100% committed to trying to help all the other groups get what they need out of the plan.”
He was pleased with the recommendation to make the North Fork of the French Broad River eligible for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic River System and expanded protection for the Big Ivy/Craggy Mountain area in Buncombe County. MountainTrue and other organizations have long championed increased protection for Big Ivy and Craggy Mountain because of the presence of old-growth forest and an abundance of rare plant and animal species.
Other elements of the plan were welcomed by some wildlife advocates, including Whitmire, who is also chair of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council. The FWCC is a group of Western North Carolina sportsmen promoting more forest management to expand wildlife and game habitat in the national forest.
Whitmire opened his business in 1992 and said that hunters and anglers were among the dominant users of the forest.
“Within a short period of time, that changed,” he added. Over the last decade, outdoor recreation activities have seen the largest growth in hiking, camping, fishing, biking and running, while hunting participation has declined nationwide.
More game habitat for hunters
If all goes according to the future plan, Whitmire and hunters could see a bump up in the amount of forest managed to improve wildlife habitat. The agency’s goal is to increase prescribed fire and the creation of young forest preferred by some species of game, such as deer and grouse.
“It’s very encouraging to see that we’re looking at the holistic part of the health of the forest and how that blends in with our wildlife,” Whitmire said during the interview with Melonas.
Among Whitmire’s concerns are falling populations of game such as whitetail deer, which he said are struggling because of loss of habitat that includes a lack of young forests and open fields.
“You can definitely see that the population is way down on [national forest land],” said Whitmire due to the lack of active forest management.
According to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, 464 whitetail deer were harvested in Transylvania County in 2021. In 2012, 235 deer were harvested.
“Harvesting” refers to the hunting of wildlife by a licensed hunter. By state law, hunters must report the killing of deer.
The rise in deer harvests, said Whitmire, is due to strong populations beyond the national forest boundaries hunted on private land — 46% of the county is publicly owned by state or federal government, including 37% in the national forest and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Whitmire is concerned that hunters increasingly rely on public lands instead of private land.
Many hunters, he said, “don’t have access to private land, and our hunters are losing more and more of that private land because it’s getting developed.”
Whitmire hopes the forest plan’s attention to managing wildlife habitat will shine a light on the legacy of hunting and fishing on national forest land in Transylvania County. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the creation of the Pisgah National Game Preserve on national forest land in Transylvania County, the same year Pisgah National Forest was formed.
The larger vision for the final forest plan
During the two-hour interview in Rosman, Whitmire asked Melonas for his vision following the final release of the plan.
“What we want to be thinking about is how we move forward together to get all this good work done,” Melonas said, remarking that the development of the plan is a “career achievement” for agency employees.
Toward the end of the two-hour interview, Melonas highlighted several elements of the plan. Among them is a more robust framework to recognize, adapt and monitor the impact of future threats to the forest. Although he did not mention climate change, he cited an urgency to prepare for more intense storms and the potential for invasive pests.
“We know that we’re going to see changes into the future, and so being able to recognize that and being able to adapt and monitor as we go is a big component of our new plan,” he said.
Whether Melonas was at the event to provide a preview of the plan was unclear. He did not speak on the objections, and his responses returned to the Forest Service’s strategy and getting everyone to work together. Members of the public need to drive these projects to completion, he said.
“The large majority of our forest is middle aged. So, a driver of the plan is how do we create more of that early forest, which is really critical for multiple wildlife species as well as making sure that other parts of the forest are trending towards older forest,” Melonas said.
Among the hallmarks of the new plan are the “best available science” — a term used by the Forest Service — a more robust, scientific approach to identifying future forest restoration and conservation projects; an emphasis on engagement with tribal partners; and creating more sustainable recreational opportunities.
“The Forest Service is a big battleship; it’s hard to turn. We want to work together to get these [projects] done,” Melonas said.
But a key challenge beyond the release of the forest plan, Melonas said, is “capacity and leverage funding to actually implement projects.”
That will rely on the capacity of Forest Service partners, including the FWCC, MountainTrue and other conservation, recreational and environmental organizations.
He also recognized the high level of engagement among forest advocates and the complexity of aligning interests that may disagree on elements of management decisions and their implementation.
Melonas said he’s up for that challenge.
“I love being able to listen to all those different voices and then how do we weave that together in a way that people can feel like they’ve been heard and feel like the thing that’s important to them is reflected so that we can manage these forests to the best of our ability going forward,” said Melonas. “That’s the hardest thing about my job, but it’s also the thing that I probably love most.”
Interested in learning more? Here’s some helpful resources:
- Planning Rule Overview Page
- Land Management Planning 101
- National Forest Management Act (NFMA)/Planning
Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Send an email to email@example.com.
Jack, this is exceptional reporting on a dense, but important topic that most people don’t have time to research. Your distillation of the significant elements involved in the forest plan process have greatly reduced the time I would otherwise spend developing an appreciation of the matters.