By Jack Igelman
Carolina Public Press
Tensions have boiled over within the Stakeholders Forum that has been seeking to build harmony on the Pisgah-Nantahala Forest plan revision after more than 40 organizations signed a memorandum of understanding supporting the creation of two National Recreation Areas in Western North Carolina.
The proposal caught some participants in the process off guard and has led them to question whether they can continue to work collaboratively with those who backed the initiative.
The recreation areas proposal was submitted to the Forest Service on the final day of the public comment period regarding potential wilderness and wild and scenic rivers designations.
One member of the forum, Steve Henson who represented the timber industry’s interests, resigned in protest.
“My resignation was prompted by my refusal to work with people that, in my opinion, could not be trusted to move forward in good faith,” said Henson in a statement shared with Carolina Public Press.
Jim Gray of Franklin, who represents the Ruffled Grouse Society on the Stakeholders Forum, also expressed concern about how the memorandum deviated from the process.
“The (Memorandum of Understanding) was a surprise to me and several others on the forum,” Gray told CPP. “We will look at anything, but my position has been to put it on the table at the forum and let’s see the pros and cons.”
Finding consensus in a room filled with dozens of people is never easy, particularly when it has to do with managing public land in Western North Carolina. The National Forest Foundation has been hosting Stakeholders Forum monthly meetings attended by groups with a foothold in the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest plan revision that will guide the management of the region’s 1 million acres of national forest over the next two decades.
NFF’s summaries of the December and January forum meetings indicate that some members were concerned that the release of the National Recreation Areas proposal and news media coverage that followed led to public confusion around the role of the Stakeholders Forum, the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership and other collaborative groups that have formed around the forest plan revision.
At stake is the direction this revision will take. As part of the of the forest plan revision, the Forest Service must conduct a wilderness inventory and evaluation. Based on feedback from the public and the best science available, the Forest Service will make recommendations for lands that could one day be included in the national wilderness system.
Tensions already existed between those who favor a substantial expansion of wilderness areas and who oppose some or all expansion. The memorandum added a new wrinkle, addressing the concerns of some wilderness proponents along with those of recreation supporters who had reservations about expanding wilderness areas, but also leaving out the voices of others whose interests and concerns remain at odds with the proposed designations.
National Recreation Areas
A National Recreation Area is a congressional designation used to enhance or protect a set of recreational opportunities in a specific area. While the creation requires an act of Congress, the first step is a recommendation from the Forest Service during the forest plan revision. An recreation area is just one type of special land designation that has received scrutiny during the forest plan revision process.
A special designation is an area or feature identified and managed to maintain a unique characteristic or purpose. Within the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, about 275,000 acres have one or more special designations.
Throughout the United States the Forest Service manages 22 national recreation areas. This designation permits a range of recreational activities and can permit timber management and can overlap with other special designations, such as wilderness.
In the memorandum of understanding, two national recreation areas were proposed: a 115,573-acre Pisgah National Recreation Area and a 57,400-acre Grandfather National Recreation Area.
“It’s a very flexible type of designation that you custom make to your area,” said Jill Gottesman of the Wilderness Society. “It’s not like the Wilderness Act, which is very clear and specific about uses and non-uses.”
Brent Martin, the Southern Appalachian regional director of the Wilderness Society, said conversations around the proposal outlined in the memorandum began three years ago and grew from discussion held among members of the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership, a group of organizations that formed around the forest planning process to provide guidance to the Forest Service.
Among the groups concerned with wilderness designation are mountain bikers since cycling is prohibited in designated wilderness.
“We began meeting with mountain bikers and found we could preserve the conservation values in wild areas and still support one another’s goals,” Martin said.
He said a National Recreation Area designation may be a potential marketing and economic development tool for the region. The protection may also allow the forest service to seek additional funding while preserving the wild characteristics of wild acreage within a National Recreation Area.
Cooperation and division
While members of the partnership and forum overlap, they are separate efforts.
A key difference between the Forest Partnership and the Stakeholders Forum is that the forum is finite, while the partnership, and other groups that have been established around the forest planning process such as the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council, will continue to operate throughout and possibly beyond the completion of the forest plan.
While much of the discord among forum members was focused on the timing and process of the memorandum’s release, it also spotlights one of the central issues of conflict that has emerged in the plan revision: land designations that guide forest management.
Some of the opposition to the national recreation area proposals and other designations, such as wilderness, is from hunters and wildlife advocates. Throughout the revision process, they have expressed concern that wildlife abundance and habitat should receive more emphasis in the planning process and that adding land designations may inhibit best practices for forest management.
The memorandum also demonstrated that designations can be a tricky topic even among those that typically support additional protection for the region’s wildest places.
Among the groups missing from the support of the national recreation areas are the Friends of Harpers Creek and Lost Cove Wilderness, the Sierra Club, the Southern Environmental Law Center, and Appalachian Voices.
Appalachian Voices is among the largest conservation organizations in the Southern Appalachians. The group’s director of programs, Matt Wasson, told CPP that while his organization participated in discussions leading up to the submission of the memorandum, they chose not to sign it.
His organization is concerned the proposal may make areas they have been supporting for wilderness designation vulnerable. In particular, the Harper Creek and Lost Cove Wilderness Study Areas (WSA). The two areas comprise nearly 13,000 acres in Burke, Avery, and Caldwell counties.
The two WSAs were created by the NC Wilderness Act of 1984 passed by Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. The act designated 68,000 acres of additional wilderness throughout the state and established 25,800 wilderness study acres. No land has been added to North Carolina’s wilderness base since.
Wasson, and others, are hoping Congress will one day add them to the wilderness base. WSAs are managed in the same manner as wilderness to preserve their wild characteristics.
“(The memorandum of understanding) was a very legitimate effort to try to bridge the difference between mountain bikers and wilderness advocates,” Wasson said. His organization joined the discussions on national recreation areas last year, but only after expressing concern with an early draft of the proposal.
“The reality is that local wilderness groups were not at the table,” he said. “Once we came out in opposition, we did have a number of discussions and helped make some improvements to the proposal.”
Still, the changes weren’t enough to garner their support. Among the central issues is that while the proposal would leave the Harper Creek and Lost Cove WSAs intact, it proposes that future congressional legislation would re-designate them as national recreation areas.
Martin said the recreation areas would protect the wilderness qualities of Harper Creek and Lost Cove while giving mountain bikers the ability to use the area — a use that is prohibited in wilderness and wilderness study areas.
Wasson said he shares the same goals as Martin in seeking protection for the region’s wildest places, but disagrees with the approach outlined in the memorandum.
“People have worked for decades to protect those areas,” he said. “If the Forest Service changes its recommendations these areas become more vulnerable to losing their protection. That’s why we think (the recreation area) is a reckless strategy.”
Both Martin and Wasson agree that getting the Harper Creek and Lost Cove WSAs to wilderness status is a challenge, but Wasson hasn’t give up hope.
“Advances in public policy (around land protection) take decades,” he said. “The Harper Creek and Lost Cove WSAs were a great gain. We don’t want to lose it.”
That indeed has been the elephant in the room: not everyone sees eye-to-eye about how Western North Carolina’s public forests should be managed for future generations and the future of recommending additional land for wilderness protection and other special land designations.
The national recreation areas proposal has also drawn concern from nearby communities. Indeed, before any designation can make it to Congress, it will likely need grassroots support from local communities.
During the last forest plan revision in the 1980s, local news media characterized the polarization of views in how to manage the forest and often reported the confrontation as one that pitted “locals” versus “outsiders.”
Two decades later that struggle has been reserved, yet present.
At a Feb. 1 Transylvania County Commissioners meeting, Ramona Henderson Bryson, a resident of Mills River who is a hunter and a participant of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council, read astatement during the public comment period calling for commissioners to oppose the national recreation areas proposal.
“To allow (a National Recreation Area) could remove the opportunity for sportsmen, hunters and fisherman and allow elitist overpaid lobbyists and lawyers to craft our future,” Bryson said. “To embrace the (proposal) by outside interests is simply wrong for our way of life. Another layer of bureaucracy will never make our lives better.”
While Transylvania County has not passed a resolution opposing wilderness so far, 10 other Western North Carolina counties have.
In addition, The Transylvania Times reported on Feb. 11 that the Town of Rosman Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to adopt a resolution opposing the creation of the National Recreation Area in the Pisgah National Forest.
David Whitmire, a Transylvania County business owner and member of the Stakeholders Forum representing wildlife and hunting interests, presented to the board expressing his concern that a national recreation area would divert funds from timber management that would benefit wildlife and habitat.
Martin of the Wilderness Society has said the memorandum proposal wouldn’t reduce hunting and “calls out our support of game management and timber harvesting.” He said comments such as Bryson’s “mischaracterize” the memorandum.
“The logjam is around designation,” he said. “We’re really trying to work with (wildlife advocates) to discuss designations.”
Martin said his organization is committed to sticking with the Forum.
“We believe it’s a valuable process, but we have to break (the designation) logjam up before we make progress,” he said.
The Stakeholders Forum met most recently on Feb. 9 in Black Mountain. The members’ hope is to provide timely recommendations for consideration in the forest plan this spring.
For their part, members of the Forum have been discreet in discussing the memorandum of understanding with CPP in order to conform to a “code of conduct” that strives to maintain a productive working climate.
Despite the recent turbulence created by the memorandum, Kevin Colburn of American Whitewater and member of the Forum, said the group has made progress.
“The right people are having the right conversations,” he said. “You have to have some degree of faith that your collective creativity and skills are going to pan out. I can’t tell you how that will happen, but I have faith that (it will).”
While there have been roadblocks, Mark Shelley of the National Forest Foundation said they’ve found common ground on contentious forest management issues and they’re making progress.
“The people at the table are passionate about the forest and the way things should go,” Shelley said. The group has been meeting monthly since the fall and hopes to provide consensus recommendations this spring around three general themes — special designations; sustainable recreation; and sustainable forest restoration — that will help guide public forest planners.
And though they’ve made headway, Shelley said there’s still work ahead.
“You’re trying to put the diverse voices around the table together for a very short amount of time to try and get meaningful recommendations. That adds some pressure,” he said.
James Melonas, the acting forest supervisor who has attended Stakeholders Forum meetings, said the memorandum provides a valuable perspective, but doesn’t include the full range of stakeholders involved in the plan revision. The Forest Service has participated in the Forum by providing updates on the revision process and providing expertise on planning issues.
“The (Memorandum of Understanding), along with other public comments received, will inform the planning team in developing the range of alternatives in the draft environmental impact statement,” he said.
“Comments to the plan do not represent a weighted voting process. They provide guidance to the Forest Service in evaluating the character of these areas for their wilderness potential. We’ll use this information to build a strong plan and alternatives.”
Melonas said the Forest Service has begun sharing developing pieces of the forest plan on the Internet. Last week, the Forest Service released sections on its Website addressing aquatic resources, ecozones, recreation and vegetation management. More sections will be released later this month.
However, a formal draft plan and Environmental Impact Statement are expected in this fall. While no public comment dates have been set, he said the Forest Service welcomes feedback.
“Sharing now allows us to show how public input is being used in the development of the plan, and helps us to make sure we are on the right track before we release an official draft,” he said.
“The building blocks we are sharing are part of building a broadly supported plan that meets the three themes identified by the public: Clean and Abundant Water, Connecting People to the Land, and Enhancing and Restoring Resiliency.”
Carolina Public Press (www.carolinapublicpress.org) is a nonprofit news organization focused on in-depth and investigative reporting in Western North Carolina.