ASHEVILLE – With a fitting arrival on Valentine’s Day, the U.S. Forest Service has released its long-awaited drafts of the Nantahala and Pisgah forest plan and environmental impact statement after a seven-year process.
Feb. 14 marks the start of the 90-day public review and comment period, when people can share their immense love of the sprawling forests in the form of responses — good, bad or otherwise — to the document that will serve as the guiding force for managing the forests for the next 10-15 years.
The Forest Service will also hold public meetings in March and April to help people digest the massive tome. But start reading now.
The draft plan, at 285 pages, and the draft EIS at 650 pages, plus numerous appendices, clocks in at 2,500 pages.
The draft plan recognizes the multiple uses of national forests including recreation, timber, water, wilderness and wildlife habitat. The draft EIS considers the economic, environmental and social impacts of forest management activities, said U.S. Forest Service planning team leader Michelle Aldridge.
The proposed plan, some seven years in the making with several setbacks due to government shutdowns in 2013 and 2018-2019 and historic forest fires in 2016, is a document required by law for every national forest to be rewritten every 15 years.
It will guide management for the more than 1 million acres of the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests in Western North Carolina, which sweep across some of the most rugged terrain and highest mountains in the Eastern United States, riddled with rivers, lakes, waterfalls, cliffs and rock faces, and nearly 1,500 miles of trails for biking, hiking and horseback riding, and including parts of the iconic Appalachian Trail and Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
Together the forests draw some 5 million visitors a year to make them two of the busiest national forests in the country.
The forests are also suffering from shrinking budgets and staff. In North Carolina, the Forest Service’s budget has decreased 25% from FY 2015 to 2019, dropping from $20 million to $15 million.
The proposed plan includes two “tiers,” a departure from the current plan, Aldridge said. Tier 1 is what the Forest Service can do with current resources, budget and staff, while Tier 2 is what can be done with the help of partners, in funding and volunteers, Aldridge said.
Out of all four national forests, which includes the 50,000-acre Uwharrie in the Piedmont and the 160,000-acre Croatan on the coast, there are 185 full-time employees, said spokesman Cathy Dowd.
These include biologists, recreation staff, forestry technicians, firefighters, district rangers, administrative staff, geologists, GIS specialists and others. This is down from 275 employees statewide in 1995.
For just the Nantahala and Pisgah forests, not including about 50 employees in the Asheville supervisor’s office, which manages all four forests, there are about 100 employees overseeing nearly 1.1 million acres of land and 5 million visitors, Dowd said.
The Forest Service relies heavily on volunteers from groups like the Carolina Mountain Club, Pisgah Hikers and Pisgah Area SORBA (a mountain biking group) to the Pisgah Conservancy, Trout Unlimited and Back Country Horseman of North Carolina.
In FY 2018, volunteers donated 163,965 hours valued at more than $4 million, Dowd said.
Unprecedented public input
Aldridge said most people will not have to set aside a month of their lives to read the plan, but instead can pull out parts most important to them.
To help the public get started, the Forest Service has put together a handy, 26-page Reader’s Guide.
Much has changed since the current plan was implemented in 1987, Aldridge said. For example, climate change, not as big a concern in the ‘80s, now has its own section in the plan and in the EIS analysis, which talk about how climate science relates to the forest and outlines some strategies that the forest can take to be more resilient.
“It’s a big picture topic. The most important thing we can do at the forest service level is make sure our forests are healthy and strong,” Aldridge said.
Recreation activities such as rock climbing, ice climbing and mountain biking were not even mentioned in the current plan. They all make an appearance in the proposed plan, as well as “emerging recreation” such as the use of e-bikes and drones. While timber management was more at the heart of the current plan, recreation is now in the driver’s seat.
Aldridge, who has been the team leader in Asheville since 2015 and has worked on 12 forest plans in different places around the country, said she has never seen such passion and public participation as in the development of the Nantahala and Pisgah national forest plan.
“The degree and intensity of public input has been unique, certainly for North Carolina. It’s unprecedented for the Forest Service,” she said.
“What’s unique about this approach compared to the current plan is we’ve asked for input along the way. So hopefully when people look at the proposed plan and the alternatives, they see their values and forestry and restoration, special designations, and sustainable recreation ideas reflected.”
Planning began in 2013 with an assessment of current forest conditions and trends and a call for public input. Then the Forest Service started putting together “building blocks,” or ideas for different areas of the forest. Input through 47 public meetings and many other meetings held by stakeholders, was gathered along the way.
The Forest Service worked with many partners, including the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and groups like the Nantahala Pisgah Forest Partnership, which represents multiple governmental and non-governmental organizations spanning a variety of resource interests from recreation to resource conservation, wildlife and habitat protection to forest products and economic development; and the Stakeholders Forum for the Nantahala and Pisgah Forest Plan Revision, which works with the National Forest Foundation to focus on forestry and restoration, special designations, and sustainable recreation.
“All have invested a significant amount of time in their comments. We have given their comments consideration and we’ve also given consideration to comments from individuals and entities who were not part of these groups,” Aldridge said.
The proposed plan describes how the Forest Service will increase forest restoration, generate more jobs and economic development in local communities and promote sustainable use of the national forests. The draft EIS presents four alternative approaches to managing the forests. In an unusual move, the Forest Service did not issue its own “preferred alternative.”
“These drafts are significantly different from the early plan materials we shared in 2017 because we’ve incorporated public feedback received since then,” Aldridge said.
“Using public input, we’ve rewritten parts of the plan, changed management area boundaries, and added a new chapter about places and uses on each part of the forest. We built alternatives based upon what we heard were shared values to offer win-win solutions and minimize polarization,” Aldridge said.
Digging in to unearth the forest plan
While many stakeholder groups approached by the Citizen Times this week declined to comment before they had a chance to read through the entire draft plan, which had been released to the public Feb. 7, some had initial thoughts.
“It’s obvious that the Forest Service worked very hard to craft alternatives that don’t put people in their corners. They’ve dispelled some persistent myths about different priorities being in tension,” said Sam Evans, National Forests and Parks program leader for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville.
“For example, the alternatives show clearly that protecting ecologically sensitive and backcountry areas, including through Wilderness designation, isn’t at odds with timber harvest or wildlife habitat needs or recreation needs like mountain biking. They also show that if we want to see more work done to improve ecological health, wildlife habitat, and recreation, then we’re going to have to work together,” he said.
Ben Prater, director of the Southeast program for Defenders of Wildlife, based in Asheville, agreed that the Forest Service had done a commendable job of evaluating a broad range of public input and values in the draft alternatives.
We will continue to engage with our partners to support a positive outcome for all involved. At Defenders of Wildlife our priority will continue to be seeking the greatest protection for wildlife and habitats that rely on our national forests to thrive,” Prater said.
Deirdre Perot, public lands representative for the Back Country Horsemen of North Carolina, said the horseback riding advocacy and trail maintenance group has been a part of the Nantahala and Pisgah Partnership and the Stakeholders Forum since the start, giving input on the plan as it was built. She was happy to the “tiered objectives” in the draft plan.
“This is something that was suggested from the collaboratives as ‘stretch goals,’” Perot said.
“We understand budgetary constraints, but given that the plan will be in place for 15-20 years, giving a tiered approach to goals helps keep the Forest Service nimble to take advantage of more favorable economic times.”
Evans, of SELC, said he has never seen a Forest Service plan issued without a “preferred alternative,” showing the agency’s commitment to being responsive to public feedback. He stressed the importance that public comment will play in this next phase of the plan’s creation.
“This is the public’s (last meaningful) chance to get involved. Our job, along with all the other groups following this closely, will be to interpret this massive document and help our friends and neighbors understand how the different alternatives will affect the places they care about.”
Learn more, comment, attend public meetings
People should know that their name and address on comments becomes part of the public record. Comments can be submitted online on the plan revisions site.
Public meetings will take place at the dates and locations below.
Additional public meetings are being scheduled across the forests. Check the website for updated information. All meetings at 5:30-8:30 p.m.
- March 10. Foothills Conference Center, 2128 S. Sterling St., Morganton.
- March 12. The North Carolina Arboretum Education Center, 100 Frederick Law Olmsted Way, Asheville. Overview presentation begins at 6 p.m. The Arboretum will be open to attendees as early at 4:30 p.m. The parking fee for meeting attendees is waived.
- March 16. The Rogow Family Community Room, Brevard Library, 212 S Gaston St, Brevard.
- March 19. The Brasstown Community Center, 255 Settawig Road, Brasstown.
- March 24. First Presbyterian Church’s Tartan Hall, 26 Church St., Franklin.
Karen Chávez is an award-winning outdoors and environment reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times and USA TODAY Network. She is the author of “Best Hikes with Dogs: North Carolina,” and is a former National Park Service ranger.
Reach me: KChavez@CitizenTimes.com or on Twitter @KarenChavezACT
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