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Stakeholders offer initial feedback on long-awaited forest management plan

The atmosphere inside the Lake Logan Conference Center was more akin to a reunion of friends than to a gathering of business associates as members of the Stakeholders Forum for the Nantahala and Pisgah Plan Revision arrived Wednesday, Feb. 26 — and perhaps there’s good reason for that. 

When the forum was first created in 2015, members would gather for monthly meetings to discuss the future of the forest and work toward a specific road map to guide it there. Every member of the 24-seat forum is present for a reason that in some way relates back to a love for the outdoors and the particular beauty of Western North Carolina’s 1 million acres of national forest, so it’s natural that friendships or at least friendliness would form around that shared interest. However, the forum was initially created because the members’ goals for the forest were so divergent that relationships were often more adversarial than amicable. The division was marked enough to prompt the U.S. Forest Service to hit pause on the forest planning process and call the forum into existence. 

Things have been quiet lately as the Forest Service has hunkered down to produce a proposed plan and draft Environmental Impact Statement. The Feb. 26 meeting was the first since November 2018, so there was a lot of catching up to do — on a personal level, but also on a professional level; hence the reason for the meeting. 

The Forest Service first began preparing to revise the management plan for the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest back in 2012, and now, after eight years of research and analysis and unprecedented levels of public involvement, a proposed plan is out. Through May 14, the Forest Service is taking public comment on the more than 2,500 pages of documents released in conjunction with the plan’s publication, and a final plan will be adopted sometime next year. 

 

An encouraging start

A cowbell, rung enthusiastically by meeting facilitator Karen DiBari, signaled the end of coffee bar catch-up time, and forum members took their seats at the giant horseshoe of tables around which the day would center. The purpose of the meeting, Dibari said, would be to give everyone a solid foundational understanding of what’s in those 2,500 pages, so that the group could later produce substantive feedback on what looks good and what needs work. 

“Even though we haven’t been in this room together, I know you all have been thinking about the plan a lot,” she told the group. 

That’s doubtless the case. Everyone on the forum is part of an organization that has strong opinions about what values and uses the new plan should prioritize, and those differing priorities are the reason that the forum came into existence in the first place. Dibari works for the nonprofit National Forest Foundation, which was called in to help build consensus when it became clear that the groups were unlikely to come to any kind of constructive understanding on their own. 

When public discussion on the forest plan started in 2013 and 2014, the tenor could easily be described as polarized, with most interested groups finding themselves in one of two camps. One camp beat the drum for dramatic increases in acreage managed as recommended wilderness or otherwise designated to receive heighted protections from logging, burning and other interventions. The other camp pointed to the exceedingly small percentage of young forest habitat on the landscape and asked for a substantial increase in logging operations, something that is prohibited in recommended wilderness areas. Recreation groups often had different priorities but also tended to divide on the wilderness question — hikers often looked favorably on the protection from developed recreation new wilderness areas might provide, for example, while mountain bikers pointed out that wilderness restrictions would box them out due to the Wilderness Act’s prohibition on mechanized travel. 

The Stakeholders Forum includes representatives from both camps. Around the horseshoe sat members of The Wilderness Society and the National Wild Turkey Federation, MountainTrue and the Ruffed Grouse Society. Mountain biking, hiking, climbing and paddling groups are all represented, as are logging companies, birders, equestrians and hunters. 

That all goes to explain why the friendly pre-meeting conversation over coffee was noteworthy, newsworthy and perhaps even shocking. Five years ago, amiability between the wilderness hikers and the wildlife hunters was still far-off. 

Even more surprising, though, were the positive reactions that representatives of these diverse interests shared about their initial look at the plan. 

“The Forest Service is clearly listening, and that makes me excited to work together in this room, to keep offering solutions,” said Sam Evans, representing the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has fallen on the pro-wilderness side of things. “I don’t come here to complain, even though it might seem like it sometimes. I come here to find solutions with y’all. I’m excited about this phase when we finally have something to really dig into.”

David Whitmire, who as chairman of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council represents a coalition of groups who mostly share a more anti-wilderness point of view, echoed those sentiments. 

“We’re excited to see a lot of information that our constituents had put into the plan show up in the plan,” he said.

 

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Members of the Stakeholders Forum discuss their initial reactions to the plan during a small group breakout Feb. 26. Holly Kays photo

 

The alternatives

The Pisgah-Nantahala had the unenviable position of being the nation’s guinea pig in the forest planning process. It was one of the first national forests to create a management plan under a 2012 planning rule that emphasizes public involvement throughout the process. 

Under the old planning rule, the draft plan’s publication Feb. 7 would have marked the first opportunity for public input. As it stands, public input has been ongoing since 2013, with the Forest Service to date hosting 47 meetings and attending dozens of others organized by other groups. Forest planners used that input to develop a set of plan building blocks that it released in 2017. Feedback on the building blocks resulted in some changes to those building blocks and informed development of a set of plan alternatives designed to provide a range of “win-win” management options. 

“We believe all these alternatives move our shared interests forward, and we want to know what people have to say about them before we make a decision,” forest revision team leader Michelle Aldridge told the forum. “There is not a preferred alternative.”

That’s a lot different from the forest plans of years past, which typically offered an alternative catering to one extreme, an alternative catering to the other extreme and a preferred alternative in the middle. This plan, meanwhile, offers three alternatives that are each designed to give every group some of what they want — but not all of it. 

“Every time we said that, people were like, ‘Huh. I’ll be interested to see how that works,’” Aldridge said.

The first alternative in the plan, Alternative A, is not considered a viable option — it’s just a restatement of the existing forest plan, which was implemented in 1987 with a major amendment completed in 1994. Everybody agrees that it’s outdated and doesn’t serve the forest’s current needs. 

Alternative B, meanwhile, aims to respond to people who want more flexibility in managing vegetation patterns, wildlife habitats, recreation and access. It has the most land available for timber management and motorized access — but it also includes the most recommended wilderness, the most flexibility in adding new trails and the easiest path to adjusting the old growth forest network. However, it has the least acreage in that network to begin with.

Alternative C responds to people who want more certainty in the forest plan, with less potential for flexibility at the forest plan level. It has the least land available for active timber management and motorized access, but also the least amount of recommended wilderness. Instead, it places more land in backcountry and into a new management area that emphasizes active management for the purpose of improving species composition. The alternative places the most restrictions on new trail development and eliminates the potential for future additions to the old growth network, but it includes the most acreage in that network to begin with. 

Alternative D targets people who want a moderate amount of flexibility in the plan, taking a middle road in the amount of land available for active timber management, recommended wilderness, backcountry and for the new management area emphasizing active management for species composition. The alternative allows for adjustments to the trail network and old growth network, but only when specific conditions are met. It includes an amount of old growth network acreage between the amounts listed in Alternatives B and C.

While the alternatives are quite different, each aims to achieve the same outcome at a forest-wide scale. 

“There’s broad agreement on what needs to happen,” said Aldridge. “What differs is where.”

Under each plan, the objectives and intensity of management activity would be the same, as would expected outputs such as timber volume, jobs and economic contributions. The only differences would be the location, size and configuration of the various management areas; management of the designated old growth network; and management of new system trails. 

However, implementation could vary drastically depending on how another dimension of the plan plays out. Following the 2017 public input sessions, the Forest Service kept hearing stakeholders say that they wished the agency would step up its level of management activity on the forest. The Forest Service would also like to increase its management level but isn’t able to do so with its currently available resources. So, the agency decided to develop Tier 1 and Tier 2 scenarios for each aspect of the plan — Tier 1 represents what the agency could do using its currently allocated government resources, and Tier 2 represents what it could do with help from partners. 

“If I had only known what I was getting us all into,” Aldridge told the forum. 

Incorporating the Tier 1 and Tier 2 scenarios meant that the Forest Service had to double its analysis workload, looking twice at every aspect of every alternative. 

“It challenged our analysis,” she said. “But I think it was important, and I’m glad that we did it. I also want to make sure you guys know that just because something is in Tier 2, that means that we analyzed it. It doesn’t mean that we could do it.”

For example, Alternatives B, C and D provide for 800 to 1,600 acres of timber harvest per year under Tier 2 but 1,600 to 3,800 acres under Tier 2. However, more timber harvest means more road construction, and road construction is both expensive and regulated — there’s no guarantee that the Forest Service could complete 3,800 acres of timber harvest each year even if given the funds needed to do so. 

“I think all the Tier 2s can be achieved,” Aldridge clarified. “What the analysis shows is it’s not just as simple as moving from a Tier 1 to a Tier 2. Tier 2 comes with some additional considerations.”

 

Framing the future

The plan, environmental impact statement and associated documents total more than 2,500 pages and had been available for only three weeks at the point that the Stakeholders Forum held its Feb. 26 meeting. Even the interested and involved subject matter experts sitting around the horseshoe hadn’t read the whole thing by the time the meeting took place. 

However, the questions they asked and the statements they made during an end-of-meeting round robin seeking general reactions to the plan pointed to the issues around which future discussion might center.

Recreation representatives were unsure about the plan for authorizing new trails. Under Alternative B, new trails could be created as long as layout incorporates design principles, minimizes impacts and doesn’t increase user conflict. An analysis would also have to find that the trail is sustainable, and the forest supervisor would have to approve the new trail. 

Alternatives C and D, meanwhile, would incorporate all the requirements from Alternative B but also require that current trails be decommissioned to make way for new ones. Alternative C is the strictest, requiring that any new trail miles be offset by decommissioning a comparable number of trail miles within the geographic area where the new trail is to be located. The forest plan splits the Pisgah-Nantahala into 12 geographic areas, a new development over the current plan. Alternative D would create a forest-wide trail bank with 30 miles of trail available to start. Trail miles would be deposited as old trails were decommissioned and withdrawn as new trails were created.

“I haven’t found or convinced myself that something positive is going to happen on the trails,” said forum member Ruth Hartzler, who represents the Carolina Mountain Club, during the meeting. “I see emphasis on decommissioning trails, and I just found out there’s no funding directly related to the plan concerning trails. So I feel a little concerned about what’s actually going to happen as far as positive impacts on the trails.”

The Forest Service’s final decision on the plan will have no impact on its federal funding. That’s true of trails, and of every other management category addressed in the document. That fact concerned wildlife groups hoping to see an increase in young forest habitat. Jim Gray, who represents the Ruffed Grouse Society on the forum, pointed out what he sees as unequal guarantees for supporters of congressionally designated wilderness versus supporters of wildlife habitat achieved through logging. 

“It (wilderness and protected areas) is either protected de facto, or it’s protected by legislation. In both cases, it happens,” Gray told his fellow forum members. “On the other hand, the forest work is subjected to budget, it’s subjected to a lot of variables, and in the case of the current plan it really didn’t happen at the level that was in the plan, so that’s a big concern. How do we guarantee a balanced plan, when one side is guaranteed essentially by law and the other side is not?”

Other stakeholders felt that the plan should strengthen environmental protections forest-wide and especially boost the consideration given to areas of special natural or cultural interest. Compared to the current forest plan, all three alternatives include enlarged management areas for Special Interest Areas, which were identified through coordination with the N.C. Natural Heritage Program and contain exceptional ecological communities. According to its website, the Natural Heritage Program has identified more than 2,400 Natural Heritage Areas statewide, and while they were all evaluated for potential inclusion as Special Interest Areas in the plan, they didn’t all qualify for inclusion in that management area.

However, said Aldridge, the plan includes a commitment to coordinate with the Natural Heritage Program when planning management actions in Natural Heritage Areas — even when those areas are not deemed “exceptional in characteristics” under the forest plan. 

That declaration sparked some back-and-forth conversation that DiBari eventually had to rein in to get the agenda back on track. 

“Does the plan do anything beyond committing to talking with the Natural Heritage Program?” asked Josh Kelly, who represents MountainTrue on the forum.

“It just says if there’s a project in there, we’ll talk to them, which is not a commitment we have in the current forest plan,” replied Aldridge. 

“If there are values present in those areas, I’m not sure why coordination is an adequate sideboard for it, because in the past coordination hasn’t been,” Evans chimed in, recapping the results of a past dispute between the Forest Service and the Natural Heritage Program to prove his point. 

At the end of the day, when forum members were asked to state their excitements and concerns surrounding the plan, Kelly reiterated that he was more concerned about what’s not in the plan than about what is in it. 

“I think there should be strong standards on how to treat natural heritage areas,” he said. “I think there should be strong standards on how to treat old growth forest when it’s found in other places.”

The plan’s contents have seen some significant changes since the last set of documents was released in 2017, and it will likely see even more change before a final plan is released in 2021. As of press time, less than three weeks into the 90-day public comment period, the Forest Service had received 251 official comments through the online form, and with seven public forums coming up over the next month, that number is likely to balloon as the May 14 comment deadline approaches. 

Curtis Smalling, who represents the N.C. Audubon Society on the forum, said that he’s working to send his constituents one “really basic message.”

“Patience. Learn about the plan,” he said. “Don’t fire something off the first Monday the plan is out.”

If that advice is followed, and those with a stake in Western North Carolina’s million-acre national forest give the Forest Service the constructive feedback it needs to do its job, optimism is high that WNC will end up with a good, thoughtful plan that will govern the forest well for the next 20 years. 

“The things I’m excited about, honestly, it’s as long as my arm,” said Megan Sutton, a forum member representing The Nature Conservancy. “I’m really excited.”

 

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Like a hand in the water, the forest plan will Like a hand in the water, the forest plan will create ripple effects for generations to come. USFS photo

 

A timeline of the plan

• Late 2012 — The Forest Service begins preparing for the plan revision process.

• Early 2013 — Public engagement begins as Forest Service works to assess current forest trends and conditions. 

• September 2013 — A draft assessment report is posted.

• October 2013 — A Federal Register notice invites public input on proposed actions for the forest plan. 

• March 2014 — A Federal Register notice announces the Forest Service’s intent to revise the forest management plan. 

• Fall 2014 — Public meetings gather input on issues and actions the new plan should address. Sharp disagreement between various interest groups prompts the Forest Service to pause the process in order to achieve better collaboration between diverse interests. 

• April 2015 — Forest Service seeks to re-engage the public by fostering collaboration between diverse interests. 

• September 2015 — The Stakeholders Forum for the Nantahala and Pisgah Forest Plan Revision is created in hopes of reducing polarization. 

• Late 2013-2017 — Many county governments pass resolutions opposing additional wilderness areas, with Buncombe County passing a resolution asking for more wilderness. Sen. Thom Tillis and Rep. Mark Meadows introduce bills in Congress aimed at moderating the Forest Service’s ability to add recommended wilderness. Neither bill passed.

• Summer 2016 — Initial forest-wide plan direction is released, including an initial set of objectives. 

• September 2016 — Original goal for adoption of a final plan passes as Forest Service focuses on collaboration. The new goal is to release a draft plan in spring 2017. 

• Fall 2016 — The Forest Service modifies the management area framework based on public comment and decides to add a chapter on geographic areas. Massive wildfires across the forest further delay plan development. 

• May 2017 — Draft plan building blocks for geographic areas and management area chapters are released. Following public comment, the Forest Service decides on a two-tiered plan approach, which doubles the analysis workload and further delays release of a final plan. 

• February 2020 — A proposed plan and Draft Environmental Impact Statement are released. 

• March 2020 — Open houses on the plan will be held regionwide.

• May 14 — Deadline to offer public comment.

• February 2021 — Final plan expected to be released. A three-month objection period will follow, and the Forest Service will then have two months to resolve any objections. 

• Late summer 2021 — Final plan expected to be adopted. 

 

Plans vs. Environmental Impact Statements 

The most important documents among the 2,500 pages of information that the U.S. Forest Service released last month are a proposed forest management plan and a Draft Environmental Impact Statement. They’re related documents, but they fulfill very different purposes. 

Forest Management Plan: Offers strategic guidance as to how the forest will be managed over the next 20 years or so. The document will occupy a place at every district office and on every program manager’s shelf. Precise wording and phrasing matters and has to stand the test of time. 

Environmental Impact Statement: Analyzes how the plan will affect forest resources. EIS’s for forest plans look at indirect effects at a programmatic level over time, as the specific effects of specific projects will be analyzed separately as those projects are planned. The document helps the forest supervisor decide what path to take, but the precise wording of an individual sentence won’t matter much over time. 

 

Be heard

Seven open houses are planned throughout the region in the coming weeks to give members of the public a chance to chat with U.S. Forest Service planning team members about what’s in the 2,500 pages of materials drafting management of the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest in the decades ahead. 

Meetings will be held 5:30 to 8 p.m., with an overview of the plan presented at 6 p.m. and the rest of the meeting dedicated to offering the chance for attendees to talk one-on-one with resource specialists. Meetings will be held:

• Tuesday, March 10, at the Foothills Conference Center in Morganton. 

• Thursday, March 12, at the N.C. Arboretum Education Center in Asheville. 

• Monday, March 16, at the Rogow Family Community Room in the Brevard Library in Brevard. 

• Thursday, March 19, at the Brasstown Community Center in Brasstown. 

• Tuesday, March 24, at the First Presbyterian Church’s Tartan Hall in Franklin. 

• Thursday, March 26, at the Bentley Fellowship Hall in Mars Hill. 

• Tuesday, March 31, at the Four Square Community Action Center in Robbinsville. 

The complete proposed plan and draft Environmental Impact Statement, as well as supplementary material including an interactive map of the forest and proposed management areas, is available at bit.ly/forestplanwnc. It’s a big document set, so the 26-page reader’s guide and 16-page consolidated objectives document give a good overview of what’s included and references to find out more about a given topic. 

The site also includes information on how to submit comments. A link to the online portal is available on the website, and comments can also be mailed to Plan Revision Team, National Forests in North Carolina, 160 Zillicoa St., Asheville, N.C.  28801. The deadline is May 14. 

The Forest Service relies on the information contained in each comment — not the volume of comments received — to make decisions. Comments that have the best chance of influencing the outcome will focus on solutions rather than general advocacy or opposition to an idea. Impactful comments also describe specific management types or resources, as well as locations, especially when using these specific locations to make a broader point applicable to other areas of the forest. 

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