Plan charts future of Pisgah, Nantahala forests

LAND WITH A PLAN: The U.S. Forest Service has finalized a management plan for Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. Black Balsam Knob, seen here, is among the most-visited sites in Pisgah National Forest. Photo courtesy of Garrett Martin

“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.” 

John Muir, American naturalist and conservationist

Western North Carolina is home to hundreds of miles of hiking trails, cascading waterfalls, old-growth forests and sacred lands, most of which are found throughout Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. 

Pisgah National Forest lies both to the north and south of Asheville and is North Carolina’s first designated national forest. Meanwhile, Nantahala National Forest, the largest of the state’s four national forests, lies to the southwest of Asheville. Both forests comprise more than 1 million acres and span 18 counties in Western North Carolina. 

Managing the forests’ resources and competing needs — such as recreation, conservation and timber production — is no small feat. That’s why the U.S. Forest Service updates plans that guide the use of the forest for decades to come.

The latest Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests Land Management Plan was implemented last month and outlines land use for the next 20 years. The 361-page document centers on four main themes: connecting people to the land; sustaining healthy ecosystems; providing clean and abundant water; and partnering with others.

Forest Supervisor James Melonas, who works at the National Forests North Carolina office in Asheville, helped oversee the final revisions of the plan. He says the document was 10 years in the making and included open houses, surveys, panels and other input opportunities to give members of the public and other stakeholders the chance to provide feedback.

“There was a huge amount of participation and over a long period of time on some stuff that’s pretty dense material and information,” says Melonas. “I’m always humbled and impressed by how engaged the public, our government partners and nongovernmental organizations have been throughout the planning process.”

The plan has received both criticism and praise. Balancing the needs of all of the interested parties was arduous, says Melonas. “There’s a lot of varying opinions on some of these things. The multiple-use mission [of the Forest Service] is inherently complex,” he says.

Xpress rounded up four takeaways from the forest plan.

Sustainable recreation

The Pisgah and Nantahala forests are among the most visited areas in Western North Carolina, averaging over 4 million visitors each year. Both forests provide some of the region’s best hiking, mountain biking, whitewater rafting and hunting.

Melonas says that the new forest plan shouldn’t affect current recreational sites, but it will guide future projects, such as adding trails. Some trail networks within the forests have spawned conflicts among different types of users — mountain bikers who prefer horse trails or hikers who carve their own paths — which can lead to erosion or otherwise damage areas of the forest. 

“We recognize that these are some of the most visited national forests in the country,” Melonas says. “We need to continue to work with partners and the communities surrounding the forest to ensure that we are providing those recreational opportunities, but doing it in a way that’s sustainable, both from a natural resource perspective and also a financial perspective.” 

Among those partners is the nearly 100-year-old Carolina Mountain Club, whose mission includes trail building, maintenance and conservation. President Tom Weaver says that the club advocated for hiking-only trails to be considered under national standards before any projects that would open the trails for bikes or horses. (The standards are laid out by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s recreational trails program.)

“Over the last 10 or 20 or 30 years, mountain biking has grown tremendously and there’s a lot of pressure on the forest to increase the amount of available trails for mountain biking,” says Weaver. “Our biggest concern is that they would take away some of our favorite hiking-only trails.”

While the plan lays out what type of new trails can occur throughout the forest, new and updated trails will be evaluated individually with input from advocacy groups and the public. 

“The Forest Service had a severe challenge to try to appease everyone, and certainly they could not because there are opposing priorities from different groups,” says Weaver. “When the rubber meets the road here with actual projects, we’ll see if the standards are used for evaluation of new trails or potentially converting trails.”

Shifting old-growth forest designations

The Pisgah and Nantahala forests contain one of the largest patches of old-growth trees east of the Mississippi River. Researchers go back and forth about a precise definition for old growth but it is generally defined as a stage of forest development that occurs when forests have not had any major disturbance for at least 100 years. 

“Old-growth forests are superimportant for a variety of reasons. They have structures that you don’t find in other forest types, mainly really large trees that provide habitat for very specialized types of plants and animals,” says Josh Kelly, a public lands field biologist at the Asheville-based environmental and conservation nonprofit, MountainTrue. “[Old-growth forests] also are important for understanding how forests function naturally and without human intervention. They’re superimportant for studying things like climate change through studying tree rings and seeing how tree growth responds to changes in the climate.”

Kelly says that his organization was one of many conservation and environmental groups that were disappointed with the plan’s stance on old growth.

“Unfortunately, this plan maintains the status quo, which is that there is no protection for old growth,” says Kelly. “There’s about 12,000 acres of documented old growth that is unprotected. And there are likely tens of thousands of other acres that are on their way to becoming old growth that are likewise unprotected.”

Kelly says all decisions about old-growth forests will be up to district rangers and will occur at the project level.

The final plan identifies 265,000 acres as old growth that will be managed to maintain and improve old-growth characteristics, says Melonas, increasing the previous old-growth network by about 54,000 acres. “There’s a lot of varying opinions on some of these things,” he says of the criticism. “This is a substantial increase and is our biggest commitment to old growth in decades.”

But Kelly takes issue with what he sees as the Forest Service’s shifting definitions of old-growth.

“It’s really a paper tiger,” maintains Kelly. “I think for old-growth designation to be meaningful, it needs to be very long term. And [the Forest Service has] shown that these, so far, are short-term designations.” 

EBCI to have more influence over forest management

Decades of ​​settlements, logging and fire exclusion have impacted culturally important forest practices of indigenous cultures in Western North Carolina, Melonas says. Now the 2004 Tribal Forest Protection Act requires federal agencies to consult with tribes more closely and gives tribes a greater stake in forest management. The Forest Service took that seriously when drafting the new forest plan, says Melonas.

The new plan dictates that the Forest Service partners with tribes to co-manage resources in the Pisgah and Nantahala forests while honoring traditional ecological knowledge and protecting places of significance. Melonas explains that his agency consulted not only with members of the local Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians but also with tribes as far away as Oklahoma whose ancestral lands are here in the mountains.

“We’ve entered into agreements with the Eastern Band that allow us to work on specific work on the ground in those areas that are most of interest to the tribe,” he says. 

In November, the EBCI Tribal Council unanimously approved a proposal with the Forest Service that includes restoration of 500 to 1,000 acres of tribal trust lands annually through fiscal year 2028 in the forms of controlled burns, treating invasive species and replenishing white oak. 

Increasing timber production

Western North Carolina has a long history of logging, and commercial use has always been part of the forests. In 1916, an area of Pisgah National Forest just east of Asheville was the first tract of land in North Carolina acquired specifically as a national forest under the 1911 Weeks Act. Nantahala followed in 1920. Since then, logging has been managed by the Forest Service.

Currently, roughly 800 acres of trees are harvested for timber per year, less than one-tenth of a percent of the more than 1.1 million acres between both forests. The new forest plan calls for increasing those levels to around one-half of 1%, says Michelle Aldridge, planning officer at National Forests North Carolina. 

“It really sounds like an extreme increase, but when you start with a very low number, it doesn’t take much to have a proportionally large increase,” Aldridge explains. “In fact, we’re talking about increasing a very small number by just a little bit so that we can have better habitat for wildlife and recruit the right types of species that the forest needs to have to be sustainable over time.”

She explains that timber harvesting helps diversify both tree types and age, which can help make forests more resilient to insects, disease and climate change. 

“If an entire human community was aging, you would see that you need greater diversity to bring strength and resiliency to the community. And the same is true within forests,” she explains. “If our entire forest is aging and we don’t have that young forest, then we’re not providing the right kind of healthy environment for our forests to thrive into the future.”


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One thought on “Plan charts future of Pisgah, Nantahala forests

  1. Voirdire

    This forest ‘plan” is nothing short of a travesty for the Pisgah and Nantahala forests. It provides no short term, nor long term protection for the most valuable part of the forests…. the remaining mature oak forests ( ..also known as old growth) that comprise the most pristine parts of the Pisgah and Nantahala forests. And, let’s once again note that it provides for a 100% INCREASE in the logging of these two forests. 100 PERCENT. And what parts of the forest will be logged? ….ONLY the mature oak tracts/ and undesignated old growth tracts. Why, because this is the most valuable timber…. BY FAR… PERIOD. This “plan” in a disingenuous ruse orchestrated by the timber industry and abetted by the Forest Service. Don’t be fooled… the 10 year damage of this plan will be monumental in scope and devastating on the ground in regard to thousands of acres of decimated mature oak tracts and hundred of miles of new roads dissecting the forest that will be required to extract them. sigh.

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