The Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests may be our shared, public lands. But what do we do with them? How do we preserve and protect them — and for what uses?
These were the questions posed at the first of Carolina Public Press’s Newsmakers series, held Thursday, Nov. 13. The lively discussion focused on the U.S. Forest Service’s draft plan for 1 million acres of public lands in Western North Carolina — and demonstrated just how passionate area residents are about the public lands that are part of the region’s great outdoors.
Moderated by environmental reporter Jack Igelman, the four-person panel included Kristin Bail, forest supervisor for the National Forests of North Carolina; Kevin Colburn, national stewardship director for American Whitewater; Gordon Warburton, mountain ecoregion supervisor for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission; and Hugh Irwin, landscape conservation planner with The Wilderness Society.
“I consider the national forests in Western North Carolina to be my home,” said Igelman, who has written a series of articles for CPP about the Forest Service proposals and call for public comment.
“They’re your forests,” said Bail. “This is what makes our country great — these are public lands.”
For the next half hour, the panelists advocated for their respective causes. Colburn pushed for water quality and river protection and recreation. Irwin pressed for more and better wilderness designations and less timber production. Warburton urged the creation of a greater diversity of wildlife habitats.
Bail, for her part, emphasized the long-term process of developing the Forest Plan and insisted that the draft proposal is just that — a draft, with the intricacies inherent in trying to satisfy its many “multi-use” provision. “This is not just about what is here today, but what will be there for our kids and grandkids,” she said.
A member of the audience, however, decried the Forest Service’s past use of defoliants such as Agent Orange. But Warburton, who argued for forest plans that provide a variety of wildlife habitats (from open fields to old-growth stands), maintained that the agency had changed dramatically in the last 30 years. “The Forest Service does not clear cut. They are not going to do industrial logging. This is scientific forestry,” he said.
Bail, Colburn, Warburton and Irwin expressed similar sentiments and talked about conservation initiatives at the beginning of the 20th century that resulted in the creation of the national forest system, the importance of national forests to clean water and air, and the crucial role the forests played in providing wildlife habitats. The first wilderness areas were designated in the 1960s, for example, and two WNC areas were among the first — Shining Rock and Linville Gorge.
But those were the last points on which the panelists – or the audience, for that matter – agreed.
Irwin and Warburton hashed out their differing views on how best to manage WNC’s woods. They rebutted, rebuffed and interrupted each other a few times in the discussion. Irwin pled for consideration for more wilderness areas: “There is a whole spectrum of areas we feel deserves better protection and the planning process should consider that,” he said. “The current proposal is extreme, unbalanced and misses a chance for collaboration.”
Warburton, on the other hand, argued that public lands like the Pisgah and Nantahala forests need a greater diversity of habitats — especially early-succession areas, he argued. Creating those areas, however, would involve “opening up” densely canopied, older sections of forest. As he put it, “In order to have diverse wildlife, it is necessary to have diverse habitats.”
On more than one occasion, Igelman had to cut one — or sometimes both – of the men off mid-sentence. And Angie Newsome, CPP’s director, moved the discussion along, inviting the audience to participate in a Q-and-A session. Some audience members seemed to forget that they were supposed to be posing questions and instead took turns leveling criticism, largely at the Forest Service. Bail fielded several questions and comments, encouraging public comment and input about the draft plan. Warburton and Irwin continued their cordial debate.
And at the end of the session, Bail thanked the audience for their involvement. “I’m glad to see people continue to come out and be engaged,” she said. “These are your lands, and this is your plan.”
The last of six public comment meetings will be hosted by the U.S.D.A. Forest Service tonight at McDowell Technical Community College in Marion, NC. However, Bail also said that comments can be submitted at any time. Bail can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 828-257-4269.