For members of the public interested in helping shape the future of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, last call is Thursday, May 14. On Feb. 14, the U.S. Forest Service kicked off a 90-day comment period on the long-awaited draft of a new plan for the forests, set to take effect in 2021 and guide the service’s management approach over the next 10-15 years.
During this ongoing comment period, Forest Service staffers hope to receive constructive feedback — just as they’ve been getting since early 2014, when public input on the document first began. In a press release announcing the new draft, Michelle Aldridge, who leads the service’s planning effort for Nantahala and Pisgah, wrote that previous comments had led her team to rewrite parts of the plan, alter management boundaries and add a new chapter with greater detail on specific places within the forests.
“What’s different about this plan from the current forest plan is the process we used to create it and the large amount of public input we have received,” says Aldridge. The current plan is the first for the two forests since federal regulations took effect in 2012 that required the Forest Service to seek more extensive public involvement.
Those with a stake in Pisgah and Nantahala can continue to offer their opinions online, by mail and in a series of meetings throughout Western North Carolina. (More information is available at avl.mx/3xx.) But after May 14, work will begin on the plan’s final draft. “How we move forward will be within the range of what’s proposed, after taking into account both public feedback and the best possible science we have available,” Aldridge says.
Through the woods
The current proposal outlines four alternative forest management strategies. Although the desired outcomes for all four alternatives are nearly identical for many goals — including levels of trail and road maintenance, stream restoration, acres of timber harvest and controlled burns — the alternatives differ in the particulars of what areas will be targeted and how they will be managed.
Alternative A is identical to the current forest management plan, while alternative B focuses on increasing road access to new places and creating new trails and recreation areas. Alternative C recommends preserving the largest old-growth forest network and places more restrictions on new trail systems, and Alternative D can be thought of as a compromise between B and C.
According to Aldridge, the proposed plan is a major step forward in how it establishes a clear vision for each ecosystem in the forest. The current forest plan, which was established in the mid-1990s, considers all forest communities as one basic entity, but the revised plan will distinguish between management techniques for high-elevation spruce-fir forest and other mixed hardwood forest types, for example. “Each part of the forest has goals that are unique to the way people use and interact with it,” she says.
Josh Kelly, public lands field biologist for Asheville-based environmental nonprofit MountainTrue, likes what he sees in the draft plan so far. He appreciates the document’s special protections for special ecological areas, as well as its more ambitious goals for controlled burns and general fire management.
Compared to the previous plan, Kelly adds, the current proposal includes only a slight increase in timber harvest. “There is more of an emphasis on restoring ecosystems and using timber harvest as a tool to do that as compared to the current plan,” he explains.
“We wanted to build a proposed plan in which each option moves multiple interests forward,” Aldridge says of the current draft plan. “We believe that all of the multiple uses can be accomplished on our million-acre forest and that we can set that up in combinations that allow everyone to move forward without pitting anyone’s interests against each other.”
Kelly notes that the draft has already incorporated many ideas from previous public comment but urges people to stay engaged through the current comment period. “Collectively, we know more about the forest than anyone does individually,” he says. “The Forest Service has a couple of dozen people working on this forest plan for this million-acre forest. The more information they get from the people who use, love and know the forest, the better the plan can be.”
To provide the most effective feedback, Kelly suggests, stakeholders should take time to research the details of the proposal and be as specific as possible. “If you are concerned about a particular place, name that place. If you are concerned by a particular proposed rule in the plan, cite that rule, the page it’s on and provide language you think would be better,” he says.
Kelly also encourages participants not to view commenting as a voting exercise among the plan’s four proposed alternatives. Because the final plan will never echo a draft version verbatim, he suggests that commenters “mix and match” the alternatives to help the Forest Service pull together a version with the best aspects of each. There’s no limit to the number of comments any person or organization can submit, so thoughts can be updated through the end of the comment period.
In the spring of 2021, the Forest Service plans to release a final draft of both the management plan and its environmental impact statement. Before those documents can be implemented, Aldridge explains, there will be one final five-month objection period for “individuals and entities who have submitted substantive formal comments” to flag any remaining issues. However, she emphasizes, that window is not intended to replace the current comment period.
Whatever form the new plan eventually takes, Aldridge is optimistic that it will represent a positive evolution of sustainable activity in Pisgah and Nantahala. “We want to make sure that the things people value now, and love, are still going to be sustainable for not just their kids, but their kids’ kids,” she says.