Diverse coalition coalesces to support forest plan

op wildernessBy Brent Martin • Guest Columnist

In recent months I have watched a tense and difficult relationship play out nationally between some members of the mountain biking community and advocates for Wilderness.  And over two years ago when the Forest Service began its management plan revision for the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest, it appeared this would be the situation here.

  Under the Wilderness Act, mountain bikes aren’t allowed in designated Wilderness areas, and after meeting with representatives from various mountain biking organizations, it was clear that unless something could be worked out there would be organized opposition to new Wilderness here in Western North Carolina as the new forest management plan was developed.  

So two years later and after countless meetings and conversations, a coalition of conservation organizations, recreation groups, and recreation-related business owners have come together with an unprecedented initiative advocating for more recreation opportunities while also supporting key land protections for a wide spectrum of interests.

The result is a proposal released publicly this week that has been formally endorsed by a growing list of nearly three dozen recreation, conservation and retail groups. The proposal envisions a forest management plan in which mountain bikers and other recreation groups keep or gain access to trails in their favorite places while offering support for priority areas to be recommended for Wilderness designation. This coalition brings together a broad range of interests, from conservationists and wilderness advocates to rock climbers, horseback riders, hikers, mountain bikers, kayakers, anglers, and business owners.

In an era where recreation has become an important economic driver for Western North Carolina, this type of proactive collaboration and consensus is more critical than ever. More and more local communities are advertising their access to the national forest, tailoring their economies to welcome recreation groups and promoting tourism based on their natural assets.  This past year the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest was the second-most visited national forest in America, second only to the White River National Forest in Colorado which is popular for its ski resorts.   

Given this fact, the next management plan for the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest should emphasize recreation as well as the conservation and protection of our shared public lands. This coalition’s proposal recognizes the economic importance of these forests for recreation and tourism. It advocates for two new National Recreation Areas (NRAs) – a 115,573-acre Pisgah NRA and a 57,400-acre Grandfather NRA – that will protect these areas from resource extraction and emphasize recreation use that is planned and managed wisely as a long-term priority. 

Timber harvesting would be allowed for certain wildlife management objectives and for ecological restoration.  It also advocates for Wilderness protection for 109,961 acres in the Nantahala-Pisgah, where hunting, fishing, horseback riding, and hiking are among the many activities allowed and welcomed.  

We are proof that stakeholders have the ability to support each other’s priorities, share a vision for the future of our national forests, and advocate for a management plan that balances the interests of conservation and recreation groups, while at the same time granting the forest the protection status it warrants. Given the history of contention between these interests, it is impossible to overestimate the value of this collaborative strategy.  

In an era when polarization is the normal way of doing business, this initiative is testimony to the power of listening and understanding diverse opinions, finding common ground, and above all, succeeding in powerful and effective long-term relationships — not unlike a gathering of new and old friends whose mutual love of the mountains brought them together around a campfire somewhere in a beautiful North Carolina forest. 

(Brent Martin is Southern Appalachian Regional Director for The Wilderness Society in Sylva.)

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