By Jack Igelman, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
A substantial number of objections to the U.S. Forest Service’s proposed land management plan for the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, released in January after a decade of analysis and collaboration with the public, is leading the agency to take more time than expected to evaluate the issues and concerns raised.
The objection phase is the final step of the planning revision process, which has invigorated debate about the best way to manage Western North Carolina’s million acres of national forest.
The closing act of the plan revision, however, may not resolve long-standing grievances with public forest management, ranging from the protection of old-growth forests to serving the economic needs of rural counties.
The Forest Service released the long-awaited proposed management plan and an environmental impact statement in January. A 60-day objection period began Jan. 21 and generated thousands of comments from individuals and organizations. A review of the objections was scheduled to be completed June 21 but has been extended.
The objections “are reviewed for assertions of violations of law, regulation and policy and other substantive issues, such as suggestions for clarification and changes or additions to plan components,” said Alan Abernethy, U.S. Forest Service Southern region spokesman.
The sheer volume of objections — from local governments, organizations and individuals — is evidence of the friction among elements of the Forest Service’s multiuse mandate, which includes timber harvesting, recreation and conservation.
Among the thousands of comments, the Forest Service eliminated ineligible objections and combined similar concerns. In all, the Forest Service is reviewing 38 objections to the forest plan. Those objections may be further consolidated during the review into a narrower set of topics.
Teams of Forest Service personnel throughout the nation will examine each topic. The agency will issue a response to each topic.
The Forest Service will host a virtual public resolution meeting from Aug. 2-4 to further examine and better understand the objections. The facilitated discussion is open to the public, however, only objectors and “interested parties” approved by the agency can participate.
Abernethy estimated the agency’s Southern region forester will deliver a response to the objections by early October and may contain written instructions to James Melonas, National Forests of North Carolina supervisor.
Announced in 2013, the revision of the forest plan was intended to take three to five years. The extended objection period will likely push the signing of the final plan into late 2022 or early 2023.
“The planning process took far longer than expected and so far hasn’t produced the plan we had hoped for, so of course, that’s been disappointing,” said American Whitewater stewardship director Kevin Colburn, who is a member of the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership. AW is an objector to the plan seeking additional stream eligibility for wild and scenic river status.
Nevertheless, he’s upbeat about the future of Western North Carolina’s national forests.
“Regardless of what the plan looks like, there will be lots of opportunities for the public to make the forests better,” Colburn said.
“We’re so fortunate to have them, and I’m certain the Forest Service is fortunate to have so many people working together that care about its future. In that, there’s hope.”
A new objection process
Attorney Sam Evans of the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville said the objection process is a recent addition to national forest management law.
Previously, forest planning included an appeal process following the completion of a forest plan. Organizations or individuals could file an appeal and seek a quasi-judicial legal resolution.
“The purpose of the post-decision appeal was a chance for the public to bring up legal problems and a chance for the Forest Service to protect itself from lawsuits,” Evans said.
In the last decade, the Forest Service has created a more collaborative approach to forest planning, guided by the new set of planning rules developed in 2012, Evans said. The shift balances interests throughout the process and is intended to be reflected in the final plan, including the timing of the current objection process, which precedes the signing of the forest plan.
Now the objection process precedes the signing of the forest plan, Evans said.
“Since objections are pre-decisional, in theory, there’s still room for improvement and an opportunity to make adjustments to the forest plan,” he said.
A feature of the objection process is that grievances with the plan aren’t just legal and may include scientific, political, economic or social concerns from potential objectors.
Additionally, the present objection process attempts to bring various parties with opposing interests together to resolve concerns.
Despite the benefits of an inclusive objection process, Evans’ concern is that the nuance and complexity of the decadelong plan development may not be understood by teams of Forest Service technocrats from other units of the agency.
“I’m pessimistic if all we do is check the box of the objection process, sign the plan and move on,” said Evans.
“The [Forest Service] needs to provide some kind of iterative process beyond these objection meetings, where they come to the table as a collaborative participant and not just as the wizard behind the curtain. Right now, there’s no room built into the process to refine ideas and improve them with collaborative participants.”
The SELC submitted a 172-page objection with MountainTrue, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and the Defenders of Wildlife.
A point of contention is that the plan leaves a significant portion of the forest open to the “most aggressive form of (timber) management.” At risk are undiscovered old-growth “patches” identified during the development of a timber project.
The Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership, a collaborative group of national forest interests, advocated a “cap and trade” approach to future Forest Service projects to differentiate and prioritize the conservation and ecological value of the forest plan’s 256,000-acre old-growth network.
According to the proposal, if a new patch of “quality” old growth is discovered, it could be “traded” for lesser patches to maintain a 256,000-acre network of old growth. The lesser-value old growth would be removed from the network elsewhere in the forest while prioritizing the most extensive and meaningful patches.
The Forest Service did not use this approach, but Evans said the agency didn’t offer an alternative for identifying old growth at the project level, leaving decisions about which stand to protect or harvest to district rangers.
Evans wants a clear set of rules in the plan. For example, if a new stand of old growth is discovered in a project area, there’s clear direction from the plan to manage it.
“What we keep hearing from the Forest Service is how we have to be more efficient at the project level,” he said. “But to do it, you’ve got to be more intentional about setting priorities and sideboards at the planning stage. … That the Forest Service hasn’t provided a framework to differentiate and protect quality old growth means that with each project there’s potential for conflict at the project level.”
Conflict over the implementation of a timber and wildlife restoration project known as the Courthouse Creek Project in Pisgah National Forest is what drew Transylvania County outdoorsman David Whitmire into the forest planning process nearly a decade ago.
At the time of the project’s proposal, Whitmire believed the timber restoration project was beneficial by creating underrepresented early successional habitat needed for wildlife habitat and game, such as wild turkey and grouse.
“When it came out, I was so excited. I thought this was the best thing for wildlife in years,” said Whitmire, who is chair of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council, or FWCC, a grassroots organization of hunters and anglers that has helped guide the development of the forest plan.
He was startled to discover that the project was considered by environmental organizations to be “the worst project in the history of Pisgah,” Whitmire said.
The ensuing debate was an incentive for his involvement in forest planning and to better grasp the science supporting timber restoration projects to create more wildlife habitat.
Overall, he’s pleased with the plan, although the FWCC filed an objection to amend protection buffers for streams that run intermittently.
Whitmire was rattled by what he considered overzealous objections to the plan during the objection process.
“Everybody has a right to object,” said Whitmire, but he is concerned “louder voices” may overshadow the resolve of smaller organizations with other legitimate issues.
Nevertheless, he thinks the planning process has validated his position, which is supported by science that he better understands and can communicate to the public.
“I believe in the restoration that the Forest Service is trying to do. I believe wildlife will benefit from the restoration work,” and he welcomes the objection process to provide a counterweight to those opposed to timber restoration, he said.
Who can object?
According to Lang Hornthal of Asheville nonprofit EcoForesters and a member of the partnership leadership team, everyone has the right to comment on the forest plan.
“Somebody living in California or Pittsburgh who comes to visit has a stake in the national forest and has the right to comment just as much as someone living on the edge of the forest,” he said.
“I think the Forest Service is very interested in taking different perspectives into account.”
Among the most vocal critics of the forest plan is Will Harlan, a resident of Barnardsville in northern Buncombe County and senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Harlan has helped foster a vigorous campaign to protect an area of Pisgah National Forest in northern Buncombe County known as Big Ivy and Craggy that has garnered support from Asheville and Buncombe County bodies of government and generated hundreds of comments in favor of its permanent protection.
His objection was submitted on behalf of the I Heart Pisgah Coalition.
“This plan weakens protections for the country’s most visited national forest,” Harlan said.
“I recognize that there are places where responsible logging can occur and needs to occur, but this plan doesn’t ensure that the Forest Service conducts that logging responsibly or protects the most important, biologically diverse places where people love to spend their time.
“We are offering a very simple solution: prioritize conservation and recreation in the country’s most popular national forest.”
He views the objection as a last-ditch effort to amplify the voice of the public, which has the most at stake, he said.
“Engaging almost 40,000 people in the forest planning process has a tremendous net benefit,” he said.
“A more engaged, informed public who actually understands what this very complex document actually means for them and is involved and playing a role in how the next 30 years of this forest and its air and water are managed for the collective benefit of everyone, I think that’s a tremendous success.”
Hornthal said the Forest Service made it clear from the very beginning that it’s not a popularity contest and the agency must write a plan that upholds its multiple-use and sustainable-yield mandates.
“Forest stewardship in (Western North Carolina) is complex and must balance restoring native forest types with conservation and recreational needs,” Hornthal said.
“To meet the challenges posed by climate change and the growing demand for recreation, the Forest Service will need to consider all threats to forest health and be prepared to act when needed. If we boil down our discussions to single issues, we narrow viewpoints and miss potential solutions to exceedingly difficult problems.”
Among the objectors are elected officials of four county governments: Buncombe, Cherokee, Clay and Graham.
A common theme in each of the objections is wilderness designation. Among them, the Buncombe County Commission is the lone county body of government favoring wilderness designation, specifically in the Big Ivy/Craggy section of the forest.
Each of the other counties is opposed to wilderness designations within their borders. A resolution passed by Cherokee County and submitted as an objection said commissioners are “adamantly opposed to the designation of any wilderness areas.” Clay County does not support additions to wilderness or “old-growth management/networks.”
However, Graham County submitted a more detailed and nuanced objection addressing a range of issues in the forest plan. In the far southwest corner of the state, Graham’s landmass is nearly 70% national forest.
Within the objection, the Graham County commissioners addressed several issues impacting the county, ranging from the upkeep of assets, such as recreational facilities, and the Forest Service’s “lack of initiative” regarding projects.
A primary dispute is the percentage of forest in Graham County identified in the plan as wilderness, old-growth patches, backcountry or other management areas that restrict or limit timber harvesting.
According to Commissioner Dale Wiggins, more than 50,000 of the 122,000 acres of national forest within Graham County will be restricted or excluded from timber harvesting activities under the future plan.
But Wiggins is also alarmed by the lack of resources the plan dedicates to national forest assets.
Wiggins said that the aging Cable Cove Campground is an example of an underserved recreational resource in the county. The relatively remote campground doesn’t earn enough to operate and has a $185,000 maintenance backlog.
“The district has been starved to death for recreation funding for a long time,” he said. “Now Cable Cove is closed to the disappointment of a lot of local people.
“We obviously are a very small county with limited resources, so we need every economic benefit that we can get from the Nantahala National Forest, whether it’s from timber harvest, recreation or tourism.
“With 22% of the Nantahala National Forest in Graham County, we should be getting a whole lot more attention from the North Carolina office, the Atlanta office and even from Washington, D.C.”
In the objection, Graham commissioners point out the plan revision process “has been unnecessarily cumbersome,” difficult to understand and placed an “unnecessary burden on average citizens and organizations.”
“It’s a monstrous-size document,” Wiggins said. “The language the Forest Service uses and the figures in the document make it very complicated. A layman cannot understand it.”
Pressure to finish?
The length and complexity of the planning process are also testing the stamina of Forest Service employees, leading to widespread stress and burnout, according to a May 20 internal letter from Forest Service chief Randy Moore obtained by CPP.
Moore said the agency’s “approaches to land management plan revisions have not been sustainable” and that lengthy revisions are too costly and impacted by changes in leadership, staff and budget.
In the letter, Moore announced the creation of a centrally coordinated approach to streamline the planning process.
Moore also recognized that the intensive planning process may be a distraction from the work the Forest Service and its collaborators intend to accomplish.
Despite the moving finish line for the plan, the Forest Service and its public and private partners are engaged in a range of projects in Western North Carolina.
Planner Michele Aldridge said the agency is “applying the revised plan’s thinking around sustaining healthy ecosystems, providing clean and abundant water, connecting people to the land and partnering with others through several ongoing initiatives.”
However, she said, applying all of the tenets of the revised plan requires a signed forest plan.
Meanwhile, Hornthal said the partnership is meeting to evaluate which future projects to prioritize.
And Whitmire said wildlife advocates are focused on creating needed habitat. To date, the FWCC has raised $60,000 and provided volunteer labor to clear a 3-acre tract that will be maintained as a field planted with grass and forb, which is an essential landscape for a range of wildlife species.
The project is part of the national forest’s Courthouse Creek Project and is supported by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
“We committed to this thing 10 years ago, and we’re gonna stick by it,” he said. “Whatever the outcome, we’re not walking away.”