Welcome to NC Talks, a new feature from Carolina Public Press! NC Talks will appear both in an upcoming new newsletter product we’re working on and in a featured spot on our website. The mission of NC Talks is to highlight diverse community perspectives on public interest issues that are important to North Carolinians. We invite you to submit columns that reflect your point of view, that can be fact checked and that are in your own voice. NC Talks will also include essays and conversations with CPP contributing writers, such as environmental reporter, Jack Igelman.
Jack Igelman is one of my very the favorite journalists I’ve had the opportunity to work with since launching Carolina Public Press in 2011. He’s a super smart reporter who is kind and full of integrity, asks deep questions, writes voluminously and seeks to find connections among people, the environment, the economy and the culture of the state. He could teach a journalism master class on how to build the trust and respect of sources who, at times, hold passionately different viewpoints.
He also shows enviable and unwavering tenacity. I believe that he has written more about North Carolina’s stunning Pisgah and Nantahala national forests than any other reporter in the country.
That’s important, because these forests hold the historic distinction of being the birthplace of modern forestry. Made up of more than 1.1 million North Carolina acres, they are also home to some iconic locations like the trails to Mt. Mitchell, Whitewater Falls (the highest falls east of the Rocky Mountains) and Joyce Kilmer National Forest and its 400-year-old trees. The N.C. Department of Natural Resources says that more than 5 million people visit these forests every year.
Jack, who is also an economics professor, has reported deeply and extensively on recent plans to rethink and edit the management plans that govern these important national forests. The remanagement effort has been years-long and intense, with many environmental, conservation, recreation, economic, hunting and fishing and other interests weighing in. He recently reported that the U.S. Forest Service released its highly anticipated plan which will govern these forests — and the communities, economy and environment they impact — for the next several decades.
This is just the latest story Jack’s written in the decade he’s been reporting for Carolina Public Press as our lead contributing environmental reporter. You can find all of his stories here, and check out several series he’s written about the future of the forests, including Fraught Forests and The Uncertain Future of Old-Growth Forests in North Carolina. His reporting has earned multiple first-place awards, including from the Sierra Club and from the N.C. Press Association.
Today, I go behind-the-scenes with Jack to ask what it has taken to report on these forests for more than a decade. And even get a glimpse into his favorite spots and what’s next.
Q & A with Jack Igelman
You’ve written hundreds of stories about Pisgah and Nantahala over the years. Is there a particular story that stands out for you?
(Feels like hundreds! Probable more like dozens?)
I’ve tried to report on how different people and users value the national forest. So a few stories that have stood out for me related to reporting on the plan and the two national forests is our reporting from rural Graham County. That reporting really helped me better understand the deep connection rural counties have with the national forest. I’m also proud of our reporting from Old Fort and how the black Community is investing in connecting with a trail development project. And also our reporting about the engagement of traditional ecological knowledge. Implementing the forest plan will require authentic partnerships, so I’ll be keeping my eye on how that plays out in the future.
I’ve been really impressed with how you’ve built the trust of your sources over the years as you’ve reported on this topic. How did you do that?
I tried really hard over the years to report on the forest plan with as little bias as possible. That, I believe, demonstrated to sources that my intent was to write accurate stories based on fact and without a particular agenda or desired outcome. That wasn’t always easy and sometimes I may have missed the target, but I continued to return to sources with an open ear to incrementally better understand the nuance and stakes of each forest topic that I reported.
Is there anything that has surprised you about reporting on these areas?
For all its faults and the inherent problems of such a complex planning process, I’m still amazed at what forest planning represents: this has been a once in a generation opportunity for people and communities to guide the future of our forests. It’s remarkable that so many people stuck with such a long process to ensure their voices were heard and interests met. That says a lot about the value of the forest to the people of our region.
In addition, I learned at the start how little I understood about all aspects of national forests: the ecology, the way people use them, and how it’s managed. The long, slow immersion in forest planning has made me a more effective reporter on all issues related to public lands and the environment.
Now that the planning document has been released, what’s next? Is your reporting on the management of these lands over?
I think there must be huge relief that the forest planning process is over. It took a long time and tons of human energy from the agency, private organizations and citizens. I’m sure I’m not the only one glad the plan has a signature. On the other hand, the agency is always planning: designing projects and executing them throughout the forest.
From my point-of-view, I’m really looking forward to continuing reporting on national forest lands. Broadly speaking, a big question is if the land management plan will be effective in delivering projects that make the forest healthier and improve users’ experiences? I’m also eager to look at how the partnerships and coalitions developed during the planning process and how they will play out in the next several years. The big hope is that the forest plan will support the agency getting more work done within its boundaries: restoring more forest, improving water quality, maintaining more trails and other areas.
There’s also a ton to follow up on from past stories: such as efforts for federal designations, such as wild and scenic rivers; understanding how climate change will impact the forests; and the ongoing story of who and how people use the forest.
If someone is a cynic, they might think that “a management plan” is one of the most boring things to write about. What kept you interested and how did you make it interesting? (Disclosure: I don’t find it boring at all.)
I don’t fault people if they find creating a forest plan to be boring! Much of it is actually. But what really stood out for me is just how deeply connected people are to the forest and its various resources, whether a trail, an activity such as hunting or mountain biking, a specific place or animal. I tried to examine that in my reporting and the passion people have for national forests gave relevance and significance to readers and kept them interested and engaged. That human connection is what gave purpose to the stories.
Do you have a favorite place in Pisgah and Nantahala? Where is it and why there? Anything else you’d like to share?
Oh not a fair question! I’ll pick two. When I was beginning my journey as a rock climber many years ago a huge milestone was ascending an ultra classic climb called the Daddy in the Linville Gorge in the Pisgah NF. I’ve climbed it dozens of times since and I love every inch of that route from bottom to top. And as a family, one of our go-to-spots is picnicking and watching the sunset at Craggy Gardens. Spending time there over the years with my wife and two boys in such a spectacular setting are moments I’ll cherish.
Jack Igelman is a CPP environmental reporter with a master’s degree from Montana State University, where he studied natural resource economics. His main interest is in conservation and environmental stories that on the people, places and institutions involved with managing the state’s natural resources. Co-author of “Trekking the Southern Appalachians” and currently teaching college-level economics, Jack’s reporting has appeared in dozens of local, regional and national publications.