It’s been about a year since the last round of public meetings, at which the U.S. Forest Service presented its inventory of potential areas for designation under the Wilderness or Wild and Scenic Rivers acts. Since then, the Forest Service has expanded the inventory and is asking for public input to evaluate whether any of the inventoried areas meet the qualifications for designation.
Basically, said forest planner Michelle Aldridge, this phase is all about getting the people who know these areas the best to weigh in on how well they meet criteria relating to scenery, recreation opportunities and habitat value, among others.
It’s a bit more preliminary than even that, Aldridge added, because the Forest Service isn’t even committed to the land area borders as currently drawn. The evaluation process may show, for instance, that one half of a particular area is a textbook case for wilderness designation, while the other half has none of the sought-after characteristics. There would be nothing to stop the Forest Service from redrawing the boundaries of the inventoried area to reflect that information.
Getting the information is the tricky part, though. The inventory of potential wilderness areas includes 566 square miles of land, and the inventory of potential wild and scenic rivers includes 53 river segments. Even with a large staff and a knowledgeable team of specialists, that’s a lot of land to cover.
“We don’t know these areas like everyone else does, so if there are members of the public who have very strong familiarity with these areas and these rivers, we want to make sure we’re not missing anything,” Aldridge said.
Considerations for wilderness designation include:
• How natural the area appears, including evidence of past management interventions and human-created structures.
• Opportunity for solitude and primitive recreation such as hiking, kayaking and fishing.
• The area’s size. Wilderness areas should be at least 5,000 acres, adjacent to an existing wilderness or recommended wilderness area, or have some other justification for inclusion.
• Presence of unique ecological, geological, historical, scenic, educational or scientific features.
• How difficult it might be to manage the area as wilderness based on characteristics such as shape, existing use agreements and management of adjacent land.
Considerations for eligibility as a Wild and Scenic River include:
• Whether the river is free-flowing.
• The quality of the scenery.
• Presence of recreation opportunities able to attract people from around the region.
• Presence of rare or unique geologic features.
• Value as habitat for fish, wildlife and plants, especially those that are threatened or endangered.
• Evidence of modern human presence and historic features.
After the feedback rolls in and the Forest Service team completes its own recommendation, the agency will decide whether any of the inventoried areas show potential to make the cut. It takes an act of Congress — among other intermediate steps — to designate new wilderness areas, but the forest management plan can include recommendations for federal action.
The plan won’t include recommendations for Wild and Scenic Rivers, with that designation going through a separate process after the Forest Service decides whether any of the inventoried rivers are eligible for designation.
“We’re not at a place where we’ve made any decisions, and we’re really seeking public input — and particularly public input about whether those areas meet characteristics for either of the evaluations,” Aldridge said.
An expanded inventory
To those who have been following the process, the magnitude of lands and waters currently up for evaluation might be surprising. The final inventory of 52 land areas represents 362,400 acres, or 35 percent of the total forest — more than double the amount listed in the first wilderness inventory, released last November. Of the forest’s 1,300 river segments, the Wild and Scenic Rivers inventory includes 53.
The uptick in potential wilderness inventory is nothing to either celebrate or protest, Aldridge said. It’s simply the outcome of ever-changing bureaucratic requirements.
When the Forest Service embarked on its plan revision, the Nantahala-Pisgah became one of the first national forests in the country to start the planning process based on the new 2012 planning rule.
But the planning directives to go along with the rule weren’t finalized until January, at which point the Forest Service was well into its planning process and had just released the wilderness inventory. The final rule had broader requirements for inclusion in the inventory than what the Forest Service had originally been working with.
“I think the main point is the directives say, ‘You need to look at everything in the inventory. You need to be very inclusive in the inventory,’” said Karen DiBari of the National Forest Foundation, who’s helping facilitate a group of stakeholders in the forest plan to give recommendations to the Forest Service.
However, said Hugh Irwin of The Wilderness Society, the increased inventory is definitely an opportunity.
“We feel these are important conservation and recreation areas that should be protected in the plan at some level,” he said. They might not all be suitable as wilderness, he said, but he believes they’re all special enough to merit some sort of designation.
Meanwhile, said John Culclasure of The Ruffed Grouse Society, it’s possible to be pro-conservation and still cautious about endorsing designations.
“Hunters aren’t categorically opposed to more wilderness, but we want to make sure it’s the right decision for all users of the forest,” he said. “We’re concerned about access, wildlife and forest health. And we’ve seen deer and grouse populations decline in areas that are restricted.”
Aldridge stressed that no decisions — regarding wilderness recommendations or anything else — have been made yet and that even the draft plan will in fact be several plans in one. The draft Environmental Impact Statement will lay out multiple potential management approaches for the public to dissect before developing a final plan. And even before the draft EIS comes out this spring, Aldridge said, the Forest Service will release bits and pieces of the developing document for the public to review.
“We want to provide glimpses along the way,” she said.
The new timeline
• December 2015-Spring 2016: Release pieces of the draft plan, or draft Environmental Impact Statement.
• Spring 2016: Release a draft Environmental Impact Statement outlining the projected effects of a range of management approaches.
• Spring-Summer 2016: Go through a formal 90-day public comment process.
• Summer 2016-Spring 2017: Respond to comments and release a draft of the final decision.
• Spring 2017-Summer 2017: Go through a formal objection process.
• Fall 2017: Release the final plan.
A pair of public meetings presenting the latest in the process of identifying lands and waters for possible designation under the federal Wilderness Act or Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is coming up this month, with written comment welcomed through Dec. 15.
• 6-8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 9, at Tartan Hall on 26 Church Street in Franklin
• 6-8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 16, in the Mountain View Room of Kimmel Arena at University of North Carolina Asheville
Content will be the same across the two meetings, with materials posted at www.fs.usda.gov/goto/nfsnc/nprevision.
Coming to consensus
Over the past year, things have been pretty quiet where the management plan revision for the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests is concerned, but that’s by design.
The U.S. Forest Service announced this spring that it would be taking a timeout on the forest plan, hoping to give dueling groups a chance to cool down and find consensus. That desire gave birth to the Stakeholders Forum for the Nantahala and Pisgah Plan Revision, which includes 30 members, each representing a different group with a different take on what the new forest plan should look like.
“The whole purpose was to try to get people talking together about what this plan could look like and how to understand the trade-offs between all the different resource issues,” said Karen DiBari, director of the National Forest Foundation’s Conservation Connect program and facilitator of the group. The NFF is the Forest Service’s nonprofit partner.
After getting involved this spring, the NFF worked to assemble a group representing the diversity of views related to the forest plan, with the forum meeting for the first time Sept. 23. The group now has two meetings under its belt and going forward will meet on the second Tuesday of each month.
“It’s going well,” said John Culclasure, who represents the Ruffed Grouse Society on the forum. “It’s a diverse group of interests at the table.”
“I’m optimistic,” agreed Hugh Irwin, who fills The Wilderness Society’s seat.
One of the first topics the group tackled after its formation was the wilderness question, a conversation that sparked heated argument during forest plan discussions last year.
On one side, environmental groups had advocated for increased wilderness, asking the Forest Service to recommend as much land as possible for federal designation. Wilderness designation is the best way to protect the forest’s most treasured lands against degradation, to preserve important ecosystems and to allow continued opportunity for primitive recreation in an increasingly developed world, they said.
Meanwhile, sportsmen had argued that populations of game animals like deer and grouse were shrinking and a scarcity of young forest habitat in the Nantahala-Pisgah was largely responsible. Wilderness designation would be a death knell for these game animals, they said, crippling the Forest Service’s ability to promote young forest with tools like prescribed fire and timber harvest.
“I think that there were lots of attempts to try to bring everybody together, but for various reasons not all the stakeholders were part of the same conversations,” DiBari said of past attempts at consensus, “and this is what this is trying to do.”
Time will tell, but so far things seem to be off to a good start. For instance, in their October meeting the group approved a statement — the forum operates by consensus decisions, not majority-minority votes — expressing confidence in the work the Forest Service has done so far on its inventory of potential wild and scenic rivers and wilderness areas.
“That was pretty significant in terms of everybody in the room saying, ‘We understand what the Forest Service has done here in terms of their process and why there were some changes. We can accept that and now we’re ready to move forward,’” DiBari said. “Given all the past conflict, that seemed like a pretty positive thing.”