By Emma Castleberry
The Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests, which cover more than a million acres across 18 WNC counties, are in the process of revising a new plan that will provide a strategic framework for managing these Forests over the next decade or longer. “The plan is a strategic document,” says Michelle Aldridge, planning team leader with the U.S. Forest Service. “It doesn’t focus on individual campgrounds or projects, but stays at the large landscape level.” The plan will address the many moving pieces of a national forest: recreation and trails, scenery, old growth forests, wildlife and endangered species, forest health, timber, water and soil, as well as special places like Wilderness Areas, the Appalachian Trail, Roan Mountain and the Cradle of Forestry. “The plan is intended to describe what we want the Forests to be in the future and how the Forest Service will move toward those long-term goals,” Aldridge says. “Our ultimate goal is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the forest for future generations.”
The Forest Service has gathered an unprecedented degree of public input in the building of this plan. “Back in 2013, we asked for input on the current condition and trend of forest resources and built an assessment of how the forest is doing,” Aldridge says. Public input has included 22,000 public comments and 42 face-to-face plan revision meetings hosted at locations around the Forest, as well as collaborative by-request meetings with partners, local governments, Federally Recognized Tribes, scientists and interested citizen groups. “The input we have received is as diverse as those who use and love these forests,” Aldridge says.
The Forest Service released a preliminary draft of the plan in fall of 2017. I HEART PISGAH, an alliance of outdoor organizations, conservation groups, businesses and citizens committed to the protection of the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forests, is a staunch critic of the preliminary draft. Will Harlan, an organizer with I HEART PISGAH, is concerned about the plan’s protection of the Forest’s important recreation hubs, old-growth forests and conservation corridors. “Stronger protections for Pisgah have widespread public, political and scientific support,” Harlan says. “The Forest Service’s preliminary plans have not reflected this widespread support for more protected areas. We want to make sure that the public’s voice is heard and reflected in the final plan.” Aldridge argues that, while the Forest Service doesn’t use the phrase “protected areas” because of the subjectivity of that phrase, there are still several special designations in the plan. “The building blocks shared last summer included language for ‘Special Interest Areas’ that will be identified on the basis of their unique ecological characteristics, newly eligible Wild and Scenic Rivers and recommended Wilderness,” says Aldridge. “Special designations are an important part of the plan revision process and will be included.”
Harlan says that the Forest Service is financially and professionally incentivized to log as much as possible. “The Forest Service wants to maximize flexibility for themselves,” he says. “They want to be able to log whenever they want, wherever they want.” I HEART PISGAH recognizes that national forests have multiple uses and the organization doesn’t identify as patently against logging in these forests. “But, overwhelmingly, the public supports more protected areas,” says Harlan, “and we simply want to make sure that more protected areas are included in the final plan.”
A revised version of the plan was initially scheduled for release in fall of this year, but the release has been delayed until early 2019. “We are at the point of some very complex, complicated analyses,” explains Aldridge. “It takes time to innovate and try new things. The plan is a large, integrated approach. Sometimes we lock one piece of the puzzle down and then something on the other side of the puzzle might need to be fixed, and this integration takes time.” The public will be notified via media and social media when the new plan is released, and a 90- day public comment period will follow. “We have plans to mobilize a massive response to the plan in those 90 days,” says Harlan, “but we will need all of the hikers and outdoor enthusiasts of the region to step up and make their voices heard.”
While the forest plan has brought some disagreement and controversy to the forefront, Aldridge is quick to note that “there is a lot more consensus than division. Overall, people are looking for a forest that is healthy and resilient, that continues to provide clean and abundant drinking water and that provides a connection to our daily quality of life through jobs, recreation, spiritual renewal and the sense of place that many know as home.”