From the crags of Grandfather Mountain to the glow of Shining Rock; from the gape of Linville Gorge to the plunge of Looking Glass; from the rush of the Nantahala to the haunt of Graveyard Fields, Western North Carolina’s forests offer a trove of treasured destinations. These woods birthed the nation’s first school of forestry and continue to host the gauntlet of the Appalachian Trail.
But what’s in store for the future of the forest?
On Thursday, July 10, the USDA Forest Service hosted a day-long information session aimed at reviewing and discussing the USDA Forest Service’s National Forests Plan Revision for the Pisgah and the Nantahala National Forests. The event, held at Asheville’s Crowne Plaza Resort and attended by more than 100 people, provided a forum on wildlife habitats, wild and scenic rivers, and ecological integrity in these two forest jewels of the Carolina crown.
Turnout matched enthusiasm as the attendees filled every seat. The hosts were even obliged to hunt down extra chairs in order to accommodate the forest conservationists, environmental-group representatives and wildlife enthusiasts who showed up to voice their opinions on a plan that will chart the course of the Pisgah and the Nantahala Forests for the next 15 to 20 years. All attendees had the opportunity to advocate for their respective causes, and none let that chance go to waste.
In the first half of the program, Sheryl Bryan — a fisheries and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service — defined the 11 eco-zones that constitute WNC’s forests. She compared the potential natural vegetation in these habitats with the actual vegetation already there, and she explained that these contrasts could help direct the National Forest Plan Revision. “What we’re doing today is taking suggestions and input on what this landscape quilt should look like,” Bryan said.
Following Bryan’s presentation, attendees were asked to participate in a “Wildlife Habitat Exercise.” They were invited to select up to five species of wildlife they wanted the Forestry Service’s plan to promote or protect — and to pinpoint on a map these animals’ habitats (many Post-It notes were used). Popular selections included deer, turkeys, grouse and elk. The crowd also pressed for the proliferation of early-successional habitats (habitats dominated by grasses, shrubs and young forests that require disturbance to thrive), the conservation of old growth forests and the maintenance of clean water — especially in riparian environments.
After a break for lunch, Gary Kauffman — a botanist and ecologist for the National Forests of North Carolina – and Jason Rodrigue — a forest silviculturalist with the same organization — began by explaining what eco-zones were.
“Essentially, a group of plant communities or a strong plant community,” Kauffman replied.
The pair then made a valiant attempt to plow through a technical discussion that involved the interplay between watershed management and ecological integrity. The composition of forest communities, the different types of forests and their age-class structures and the natural range of variation approach to forest management were discussed. The evaluation, eligibility and classification of wild and scenic rivers also came into play.
Another group activity focused on watershed management concluded the program.
But one topic that didn’t make the itinerary, yet was discussed in an ad hoc gathering, was the state’s controversial inquiries into oil and fracking leases — some on Forest Service lands. During an impromptu meeting of 12 conference-goers that materialized during the lunch break, Forest Supervisor Kristin Bail said that oil exploration is not part of the forest management plan because no one has approached her regarding the subject.
“Frankly, we are not thinking about fracking. No one is asking about oil and gas,” Bail said.
She noted that the Forest Service is not a regulatory agency, but representatives from such groups as the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and Frack Free NC were eager to initiate a conversation.
For its part, the Forest Service is planning more sessions in October on topics such as Establishing Management Areas, Desired Conditions, Objectives, Standards and Guidelines in the Revised Plan, with six public meetings across Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests in the vicinity of the six ranger districts.
To comment on fracking policy, oil and gas exploration, the National Forests Plan Revision, land management, and related topics, contact the Bureau of Land Management or the USDA Forest Service. Comments or questions about the Plan revision or process can be sent by email to NCplanrevision@fs.fed.us.