Forest Forward

Forest Forward: Looking ahead at the future of ecological protection in WNC
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The long-awaited plan to manage more than 1 million acres of national forest was released Feb. 17 by the U.S. Forest Service. The plan sets out a strategy to restore the ecological integrity of ecosystems and watersheds within Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. It also prioritizes sustainable recreation to accommodate expanding visitation in one of the nation’s most popular national forests. 

The final revised land management plan and the final environmental impact statement are available online. National forests are required to have a plan describing the strategic direction for management of forest resources that is revised every 10-15 years or when conditions require an update. The management of forest resources was guided by the 1976 National Forest Management Act.

The revision of the plan is managed by the National Forests in North Carolina office, or NFNC, 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 in 1994.

James Melonas, forest supervisor of the NFNC who signed the plan, said in a press release from Friday February 17, that the plan provides a framework to address challenges that include climate change and recreational demands.

“Ensuring our forest ecosystems are healthy and resilient is critical to long-term sustainability of all the habitats and ecosystem benefits on which we all depend,” Melonas said in the press release.

The plan, signed on Feb. 16, took effect in mid-March, 30 days following its signing, and will guide the management strategy of the forest for the next two decades.

The plan was originally expected to be completed within five years, but heavy public participation, navigating new planning rules and the pandemic delayed its progress.

The plan centers on four themes: 
• Connecting people to the land.
• Sustaining healthy ecosystems.
• Providing clean and abundant water.
• Partnering with others. 

The plan also recommends 49,000 acres for newly recommended wilderness and nine newly eligible wild and scenic rivers. An act of Congress is needed for the recommendations in the plan to become permanent. However, for the life of the plan, recommended wilderness and eligible rivers are managed according to the law.

Both wilderness and wild and scenic protections are prized by environmental organizations and often take years to accomplish. The Wilderness Act is the highest form of land protection in the nation. Wild and scenic status is the nation’s highest level of protection for free-flowing rivers. The law includes protecting their free-flowing conditions from future dams or other projects that could impede them. 

Kevin Colburn, national stewardship director of American Whitewater, said the wild and scenic eligibility recommendation is a bright spot of the plan. Wild and scenic eligibility is the first step to adding a waterway with exceptional recreational, cultural or natural characteristics to the wild and scenic national rivers program. 

The wild and scenic additions, he said, reflect the importance of clean water and outdoor recreation in the region. “It’s our hope that this new forest plan will inspire communities to seek permanent Wild and Scenic River designation for some of these streams.”

Colburn has been involved in the plan revision process that involved the collaboration of dozens of public and private organizations since the start of the plan revision process in 2013. On Nov. 20, 2013, CPP reported on the announcement of six public input meetings hosted by the U.S. Forest Service in six locations to gather comments on a draft assessment report at the start of the planning process.

In 2013, Michelle Aldridge, who is supervising the plan’s revision, told CPP that one of the objectives of the planning process was 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 in 2013. “Our goal is to capture feedback from all the interested public who are willing to share.”

Over the course of the next decade, the revision process was characterized by intense public involvement that generated thousands of comments and suggestions by forest users and advocates.

In the press release announcing the release of the final plan, Aldridge said that partnerships are the backbone of the plan. “The plan is explicit about our commitment to ensure that we welcome new voices and diverse perspectives to create an environment where everyone is welcome, valued and treated equitably,” said Aldridge. 

David Whitmire of Transylvania County, a sportsman who chairs the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council, told CPP that he is excited to see the plan finished and signed.“We’re proud to be a part of one of the first collaborative forest plans in the nation,” he said. “We’re happy to have the plan as a roadmap for the next 20-30 years to achieve the goals for a healthy forest and quality wildlife habitat. We trust the U.S. Forest Service and look forward to working with them and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission on behalf of wildlife.”

Not everyone is pleased with the plan. A press release from five environmental organizations, including the Southern Environmental Law Center, or SELC, MountainTrue, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and Defenders of Wildlife said that the plan recklessly opens critical areas to logging and road building, and ignores the forest’s ability to store carbon.

“The Forest Service had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to map out a better future for these two incredible forests, but this forest plan is instead a step backward,” said attorney Sam Evans of the SELC. “The plan not only dramatically expands where and how much logging will happen, but it puts the wildlife habitats, backcountry areas and old-growth areas that make the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests special on the chopping block.” Evans said the group will continue to oppose this plan, and “we will certainly oppose any project that will harm old growth, rare species, and backcountry areas.”

Lang Hornthal of Asheville nonprofit EcoForesters and a member of the Nantahala Pisgah Forest Partnership, a collaborative group of national forest advocates, said he’s encouraged that some of the ideas and suggestions from collaborative efforts made their way into the plan, such as the introduction of priority watersheds and coordinating annually with the N.C. Heritage Program to better manage natural heritage areas.

“Maintaining healthy ecosystems and clean water was important to every user group, and I see in the plan where the forest service was listening,” said Hornthall. “There is more work to be done at the project level, and we are excited about staying engaged.”

Achieving the plan’s strategies will happen through a range of projects focused on a broad list of goals from trail building to forest restoration. For example, the Crossover Project is currently under analysis and includes timber harvesting, prescribed burning and the improvement of wildlife and botanical habitat in Cherokee and Graham County in Nantahala National Forest.