Future management of WNC’s national forests up for discussion

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10- to 15-year plan subject of public meetings

Coming next week: A look at the history and development of the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests and what their future may hold.

A 10-to-15-year management plan is under development for Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. Jack Igelman/Carolina Public Press

A 10- to 15-year management plan is under development for Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, which span more than 1 million acres across 18 counties. Jack Igelman/Carolina Public Press

In 1911, the U.S. government purchased 8,100 acres in McDowell County to protect forest land in the Curtis Creek watershed near Marion. It was the first of many land swaps in the region that eventually formed two national forests and added more than 1 million acres to the public domain spanning 18 counties in Western North Carolina.

The 18-county area included in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests management plan. Map courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.

The 18-county area included in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests management plan. Map courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service. Click to view full-size image.

For the first time since 1994, the public now has the opportunity to influence how that federal forest land — now known as the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests — will be managed for the next 15 years.

On Monday, the U.S. Forest Service hosted the first of six public input meetings in six locations to gather comments on a draft assessment report that will precede a management plan revision for the forests.

See below for the full schedule, which includes meetings in Murphy, Robbinsville, Mars Hill and Franklin through mid-December. The six drop-ins will replace an all-day public meeting previously scheduled for Oct. 5 but canceled due to the federal government shutdown.

What plan, and why now?

Guided by the 1976 National Forest Management Act, national forests are required to have a plan describing the strategic direction for management of forest resources that is revised every 10 to 15 years or when conditions require an update.

The revision of the plan is managed by the National Forests in North Carolina office, which is based in Asheville and supervises the state’s four national forests. While the 1976 law requires each forest to have a plan, a single plan covers the two national forests in the mountain region and was last updated nearly 20 years ago. Read the draft assessment report below.

Michelle Aldridge, the acting planning staff officer who is supervising the plan’s revision, said one of the objectives of the planning process is to engage the public to comment on the draft plan and to identify what needs to change.

“We are hoping that we get a lot of involvement; that is a cornerstone of the process,” she said. “Our goal is to capture feedback from all the interested public who are willing to share.”

The revision process is also guided by a 2012 Forest Service planning rule that calls for three phases before completing the revision. Aldridge said that the first stage evaluates the current social, economic and ecological condition of the forests.

At the November and December drop-ins, the public can submit ideas on ways the current draft assessment report should be changed on topics ranging from cultural and historic-resource use to the management of mineral resources.

At the conclusion of the assessment phase, the Forest Service wants to have a thorough understanding of the forests current conditions and trends.

The draft assessment report was posted online in September, but will be updated based on public comments and be presented to the public in January 2014. A date has not yet been set.

“We are looking at this forest-wide, so we want folks to understand the scale and scope of the plan,” Aldridge said, adding that the Forest Service will continue to accept input throughout the revision process. ” We want to know from the public what needs to change about the current plan.”

The three phases of the revision planning process are scheduled to be complete in the spring of 2016, Aldridge said, at an estimated cost of more than $1.6 million budgeted over four fiscal years.

Plan’s process, budget raises questions

Bob Gale, ecologist and public lands director at the Asheville-based Western North Carolina Alliance, worries that timeline may be too ambitious.

“The USFS has excellent people and has good intentions, but our biggest concern is that they are under pressure to get the plan done quickly,” he said. “Given the current budgeting, that’s not enough time to do it right.”

Established by Esther Cunningham — a retired Macon County hairdresser — in response to the first proposed 1984 forest management plan, the WNC Alliance played a leading role in amending the current plan, wrote Mars Hill College environmental historian Kathryn Newfont in her book, Blue Ridge Commons: Environmental Activism and Forest History in Western North Carolina.

That original proposal called for 389,000 acres of Western North Carolina’s national forestlands to be harvested by clear cutting over five decades; eased restrictions on mineral and petroleum development; and proposed 7,000 miles of new roads.

Fueled by widespread opposition to the plan, a grassroots effort led to an appeal of the plan and a major overhaul. The resulting plan, which was revised in 1994, wrote Newfont, was considered one of the most environmentally sensitive management plans in the nation.

Gale said that he hopes the upcoming plan revision will respond to current concerns and threats, such as climate change, non-native plants and pests and the impact of increased recreational demands on the forest. But, he added that the context of the current plan revision is different since the forest is being managed sustainably.

“The massive public outcry to the 1987 plan shows that people in Western North Carolina really care about where they live and the threats to our forest,” Gale said. “We intend to ensure the public is involved in a meaningful way and to advocate for a realistic and attainable plan that protects the special places of the forest.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story did not make it clear that the “plan” under review and comment now is a draft assessment report, which will ultimately be used to determine what items might need to be changed as a draft of the new management plan is developed. Also, that version incorrectly named the federal law that requires forest management plans: It is in fact the National Forest Management Act.


How to comment

You may find the plan’s process timeline here. Each Drop-in Open House is scheduled to be held at the following locations from 4-7 p.m.

Nov. 19, 2013 Transylvania County Library in Brevard

Dec. 3, 2013 – Two locations

Dec. 5, 2013 Graham County Community Center in Robbinsville

Dec. 17, 2013 Nantahala District Office in Franklin

Members of the public are invited to drop in at any time between 4 and 7 p.m. There will be no formal presentations so you need not arrive at the beginning of the session, nor do you need to plan on staying for the entire time. Also, the Forest Service said that there is no need to attend more than one open house, as each will repeat the same format.

View the draft assessment here:

Corrections and clarifications: A previous version of this story misstated the name of the management act, which is the National Forest Management Act. The story has also been updated to clarify that the Forest Service is currently seeking input on a use assessment of the forests; the draft plan will be developed in 2014. And due to an editing error, the date of a meeting in Brevard was incorrect; it occurred on Nov. 19.

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About the Author

Jack Igelman

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

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