From CPP: Can collaboration on NC national forests coexist with litigation?

Old growth forest on Brushy Mountain in Nantahala National Forest. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

Three lawsuits filed in 2024 against the U.S. Forest Service highlight concerns that the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest Land Management Plan is failing to protect mature and old-growth forests, safeguard endangered species and evaluate the climate impact of timber cutting accurately.

The Forest Service finalized its forest plan for Western North Carolina’s two national forests in Feb. 2023 after a decade-long process that included thousands of public comments and the commitment of dozens of groups of stakeholders.

The development and implementation of National Forest land management plans must include public collaboration mandated by federal law. Public input is intended to aid the agency in strategically addressing an array of social, economic, and environmental issues in Western North Carolina, such as, rising recreational demand, biodiversity loss, water quality, land protection, and an array of ecological changes complicated by climate change.

Litigation, however, is another approach.

Those filing lawsuits say they are trying to safeguard the environment and hold the Forest Service accountable for its management choices, ensuring the agency adheres to key environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.

Some contend that lawsuits hinder collaboration and diminish public backing for projects carried out by the Forest Service to achieve the plan’s core goals, which include ecological restoration and meeting rising recreational demands.

While collaboration and litigation seem contrary, is it possible they can coexist?


During the pandemic in 2021, cyclist Julie White and equestrian Deridre Perot met at Woods Mountain in the Pisgah National Forest in McDowell County for a trail ride.  Equestrians and mountain bikers often share trails in the National Forest, but the two modes of trail recreation are sometimes at odds because of differences in speed, maneuverability and size.

Not only did they share the trail, but “on the last mile we switched; I got on her bike, and she got on my horse,” White said.

The two friends developed a bond through their participation in the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership, a collaborative group formed in 2012 to provide input to the Forest Service during the planning phase of the Forest Plan.

Together, White who represents the Southern Off-Road Bike Association and Perot representing Back Country Horsemen of American, are among several recreational groups whose work resulted in miles of new trails in the Grandfather Ranger District serving equestrians, hikers, and cyclists.

“The plan brought equestrians and cyclists to the table to talk to each other,” Perot said. “We understood that we’re all going to miss out if we don’t sit down and discuss places that are important to all trail users.”

The formation of the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership coincided with the creation of new planning rules guiding the development and revision of land management plans for all units of the National Forest system.

Martin Nie, a policy analyst at the University of Montana advised on the implementation of the 2012 Planning Rule.

“The rules were a profound shift for the agency,” Nie said.

“These plans are really supposed to promote ecological integrity, be informed by the best science and engage the public.  A lot of the older (first-generation plans from the 1980s and 1990s) emphasized optimizing various uses on a forest, using a lot of models and programs to make predictions about commercial outputs and uses like timber harvest.

“Some of these first-generation plans, therefore, had the tendency to treat the public as antagonists or a hurdle to be overcome.”

The Pisgah and Nantahala National Forest Plan was among the first five plan revisions guided by the 2012 Planning Rule. Over the next two decades the Forest Service, with input from partnering organizations throughout Western North Carolina, will continue shaping projects that promise expanded recreational opportunities and restored forest habitats and landscapes.

While all Forest Service actions must be aligned with the Forest Plan, Nie said, there’s still wiggle room to figure out how to best meet the plan’s objectives.

As a result, “forest planning is at its heart a political exercise about who gets what,” Nie said. “The stakes are incredibly high about how those lands will be allocated. Science will help inform those decisions, but you have to have the public’s buy-in. The hope is that collaboration in the planning process will set up longer lasting relationships at the project level.”

Kevin Colburn of American Whitewater has participated in the plan’s revision as a member of the Partnership since 2014.

Colburn’s organization advocates for the protection of whitewater rivers and designating them within the U.S. Wild and Scenic River System. Forest plans identify rivers that can be eligible for designation, which ultimately requires an act of Congress. Among the rivers added to the Wild and Scenic list of eligible rivers was the North Fork of the French Broad River.

“The North Fork eligibility wouldn’t have happened without the public support and interest we found in the forest planning process,” he said.

While the plan brought support for Colburn’s interests, participating in the planning process also informed him about other concerns and interests, he said.

“I wouldn’t have the level of knowledge and empathy for other forms of recreation and concerns had it not been for the collaborative process,” he said.

Audubon North Carolina executive director Curtis Smalling said the structure of project teams within the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership increases the flow of information between interests.

“It just feels more transparent,” he said.

“We’ve built up a level of trust over the last 10 years so there’s more of a chance for the partnerships to persist and survive differences of opinion. I won’t say it’s all kumbaya out here, but we’ve all at least agreed that we’ve got to keep talking about it. We still feel like most people want to come together and have a healthy forest.”

Collaboration also allowed stakeholders to develop a more meaningful relationship with the agency.

“For the first time that I can remember, Forest Service staff have reached out to (Audubon NC) directly with questions,” Smalling said. “That never used to happen. That’s good. That’s a step forward.”

National Forests in North Carolina supervisor James Melonas told CPP that the “development of the plan really helped establish and strengthen relationships and create a shared vision.”

Melonas emphasized the importance of connections with private and public organizations throughout the region, among them a partnership with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians to steward ancestral lands through projects restoring stands of white oak, prescribed burning and watershed restoration in areas of importance to the Tribe.

He also mentioned several examples of collaboration featuring ecological restoration and sustainable recreation, including work with neighboring National Forests and partnering with the town of Old Fort to nurture an outdoor economy.


In addition to collaborating with stakeholders, the Forest Service must also adhere to several conservation laws that govern the federal agency’s management of public lands.

When conflicts arise over the Forest Service’s decisions, citizens can and do use the federal court system to address their concerns through litigation.

In April, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service, arguing that the Forest Plan aims to significantly increase logging, which threatens sensitive areas and endangered bats.

According to the suit, the plan’s analysis is flawed and violates the Endangered Species Act by failing to study the plan’s impact on federally protected bats, endangering their survival and causing broader ecological consequences.

Passed in 1973, the Endangered Species Act, or ESA, is a program for the conservation of threatened and endangered plants and animals and the habitats in which they live. The law requires federal agencies, such as the Forest Service, to ensure their actions don’t impact the existence of any species listed under the ESA.

The suit was the third filed in 2024 by the SELC against the Forest Service with plaintiffs that include organizations participating in the Partnership, such as MountainTrue, the Chattooga Conservancy, the Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, and the NC chapter of the Sierra Club.

The SELC, the Sierra Club, and the Chattooga Conservancy participate in the Partnership as “affiliate organizations” and do not vote on approving Partnership rules, policies or recommendations.

“Just because you collaborate in the revision of a plan doesn’t mean you forgo enforcing it,” Nie said.

“A part of using the plan is to ensure that every project is aligned with the plan. Collaboration doesn’t make the Forest Service immune from the panoply of environmental statutes they have to follow.  If there are projects that potentially undermine those protections you’re going to get litigation.”

SELC attorney Sam Evans said the lawsuits were a last resort to prevent timber production that impacts rare species, tracts of old-growth forest or other sensitive ecosystems.

“We gave the Forest Service a clear path that could have allowed them to cut more trees while causing less harm by improving protections for rare habitat, old growth, unroaded areas, and water quality,” Evans said. “Instead, we have a plan that commits to only one subset of those things. And that’s the logging piece.”

Evans said the Partnership’s recommendations provided detailed input at each of the plan’s checkpoints, providing feedback on a range of issues within the plan’s components and were meant to be taken as a whole.

“Collaboration only works if the agency accepts the collaborative solution,” Evans said.

“In this case they didn’t. The Forest Service made its own decision separately. We still don’t know why they didn’t adopt some of the Partnership’s recommendations.”

Melonas said the agency fully considered, understood, and appreciated the work of the Partnership. The Forest Service included Partnership recommendations, for example, that added eligible wild and scenic rivers, included 35,000 acres of recommended wilderness areas, and added public involvement guidelines in landscape projects that are more inclusive than national requirements.

“We’re going to continue to have to work on challenging issues throughout the life of the Plan and we are responsible for listening to the full spectrum of voices and perspectives,” Melonas said.

“Ultimately the best we can do in the plan is create the framework to (complete projects), knowing that these are really complex issues in the most heavily visited and biodiverse forest in the National Forest System.”

A risk of suing the Forest Service, Nie said, is that litigation can sometimes be viewed as controversial and may alienate the agency or stakeholders who have invested time and money to hammer out areas of compromise.

Evans said he worries about the social consequences of litigation and the impact on the agency and other groups that “are composed of people who genuinely want to do what’s right for the forest”.

“If the Forest Service had been willing to listen to the collaborative solutions this would be unnecessary,” he said. “I know that some people see us as being unreasonable at this point, but it’s never unreasonable to ask a federal agency to follow the law.”

Forest Service spokesman Adam Rondeau said the agency can’t comment on pending litigation.

David Whitmire of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council, a group of Western North Carolina hunters and fishers, said the lawsuit undermines what he considers a strong forest management plan.  The FWCC is not a participant in the Partnership, but has collaborated with the Forest Service and the NC Wildlife Resources Commission on projects to improve habitat.

Hunters were once among the dominant recreational user groups of national forests, but the percentage of the U.S. population that hunts has declined since the 1960s. Whitmire is concerned that the lack of forest habitat for game will further diminish the hunting tradition in the North Carolina mountains.

Preserving the hunting culture, he said, requires abundant populations of deer, ruffed grouse, and other game species. Hunters in the region are asking for more active timber management, such as controlled burns and logging, to provide game with more early successional habitat, which are young forests, shrubs and grasslands.

“We’ll fight over the last acre if we have to defend restoration and wildlife management,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere. We feel that this lawsuit is being used to push against this plan. I appreciate people who stand up for their values. But sportsmen’s values deserve just as much respect as everyone else’s.”

What’s next with partnerships and litigation? 

According to Nie, sharing a common purpose is a foundational principle of collaboration which may be enough to overcome disagreements around contentious forest issues and ongoing litigation against the Forest Service.

A measure of the strength of the Plan’s common purpose may be the Pisgah Restoration Initiative. The upcoming 10-year project involving multiple partners and interests will restore fire-adapted ecosystems, reduce wildfire risk and improve water quality on 70,000 acres within the Pisgah National Forest.

“At the end of the day, it’s about a long-term vision of having a forest that’s healthy and resilient to the changing climate and how people use the forest,” Melonas said.  “We have to make sure that that’s done in a sustainable way while also providing for a more welcoming and inclusive place for people to recreate.”

Evans hopes the Forest Service will choose to amend the plan that incorporates more protections for sensitive areas of the forest, such as old-growth forests, rare species and unroaded areas. He also hopes to stay involved in the Partnership.

“We feel like we have a lot to offer the collaborative process,” he said. “If that’s not possible in the short term because of our litigation, that’s something that we’re OK with.”

Colburn of AW supports each stakeholder’s right to pursue litigation and ensure the Forest Service is acting within the law. He’s also optimistic about the future of the forests and the plan guiding its management.

“The forest is becoming more important than ever as counties choose development on private lands surrounding national forest,” he said.

“We’re rich in public lands in a way no one else is in the (Eastern United States) and the demand to live and travel here is the natural outcome,” he said.

“Forest planning has always been about the cool stuff we can do to make things better on the ground for people and the forest.”

This article first appeared on Carolina Public Press and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.


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2 thoughts on “From CPP: Can collaboration on NC national forests coexist with litigation?

  1. Voirdire

    It’s a fools errand to think that collaboration with the Forest Service is genuinely possible ..particularly with the disingenuous as the day is long Forest Service ruse of soliciting public comments and in the end doing the quite the opposite. This has always been their modus operandi for every Forest Plan they have ever put forth for the Pisgah/Nantahala forests’s their dog and pony show that they roll out every ten years. Litigation is the only way to make them take the new parameters of water quality, biodiversity et al into consideration …because they’re hard-wired to get the cut out. period.

  2. JT4784

    I support the lawsuits.

    Given that hunters are a constantly shrinking minority, their old ways of slashing and burning to manipulate nature into producing more animals to slaughter should have died out. It’s up to all of us to stand up for the majority who are “non-consumptive users”.

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