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Wednesday, 02 May 2007 00:00

Wilderness Society comes to WNC: National environmental organization opens office in Franklin

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The Wilderness Society has signaled a strong interest in the future of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests with the opening of an office in Franklin.

 

The new Wilderness Society office — the first one ever in Western North Carolina — is gearing up for an active role in drafting a new forest management plan for the Pisgah and Nantahala. The forest plan will dictate where and how much logging goes on, whether old-growth and roadless areas are set aside, which species get protected and what recreation is allowed where.

The forest plans will cover 1.2 million acres of the Pisgah and Nantahala in Western North Carolina. Forest plans are revisited every 10 to 15 years.

“The Wilderness Society has a history of public lands protection,” said Brent Martin, the director for the new regional office. “It has a high interest in making sure we get a good management plan for these two forests.”

Martin is a long-time advocate for public lands and conservation himself. Martin served as the associate director of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee for the past three and a half years. Before that, he spent seven years with the Georgia Forest Watch.

The writing of a new forest plan isn’t a simple or quick process. It can easily take five years or more. Stakeholders — from environmentalists to outdoor recreation groups — get to weigh in throughout the process.

“This is an opportunity for the public to influence the way our national forests are managed,” Martin said. “What the forest service does and doesn’t do over the next 10-year period is dictated by the forest plan.”

However, the process is so long and arduous that the public can get burned out or bored, Martin said. That’s where Martin will come in.

His job will be to monitor developments in the new forest plan, keep people informed and energized, and build consensus on what the public wants in the plan.

The drafting of a new forest plan won’t start for another year to 18 months, or possibly longer. But there’s lot for Martin to start working on.

For example, one issue up for debate in the new forest plan is whether some 172,000 acres of designated roadless areas in the Pisgah and Nantahala are made off-limits to new road building or logging. The roadless areas are currently protected by the federal Roadless Rule put in place during the Clinton era. President Bush attempted to undo the Roadless Rule, but a federal court recently overruled the attempt, so the protections remain in place for now. There’s one way to ensure protection regardless of the whims in Washington: write those protections into the forest plan, Martin said. That’s one area Martin will start building public support for before the process officially kicks off.

“There is a lot of work to be done before plan revision starts,” Martin said.

Another example of what’s at stake in the forest plan: the fate of 16,000 acres designated as “wilderness study areas” in the last forest plan. Wilderness areas within national forests — such as Shining Rock, Joyce Kilmer or Ellicott Rock — have greater protections, such as no logging or motorized recreation. The 16,000 acres of wilderness study area could be recommended for official wilderness designation, or be decommissioned, Martin said.

Another thing to decide in the new forest plan is which species to prop up, which in turn dictates how the forest is managed. If the forest services wants more turkeys, for example, that means more logging to create clearings that turkeys like. If bears are higher on the totem pole, that means large, old trees more likely to contain good den sites should be left in place rather than logged.

Which species are valued in the forest plan determine the types of habitats the forest service will attempt to preserve, manipulate or create in the forest landscape.

The Wilderness Society was created in the 1930s. The creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was one of their early projects. In the 1960s, they were instrumental in the creation of wilderness areas within national forests.

Martin won’t spend all his time on the forest plan. He also plans to advocate for more land and water conservation funding from the state and federal government — namely to fund conservation of private land.

“You can’t protect wilderness in a vacuum,” Martin said. “We have to look at the whole landscape so the wilderness society is interested in looking at how they can partner with organizations that are working with private land owners to preserve tracts.”

The new Wilderness Society office is located at 656 Highlands Road in Franklin in an office building near Bi-Lo. For more information, go to www.tws.org.

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