This is your captain speaking…

Storm clouds collide as lightning seems to surround the airplane — immediately followed by the ear-splitting, heart-stopping reverberation of thunder booming through the cabin. Gusts of wind buffet the plane mercilessly, and maintaining elevation is becoming a life-threatening struggle. As the plane labors under the weight of crew, cargo and passengers, it begins losing altitude steadily — and the need to lighten the load becomes painfully obvious.

Outside of some dark comedy, one wouldn't think of pushing the pilot out the door of a distressed plane. This scenario reminds me of a line from the movie Airplane, when the flight attendant tells the passengers: "There's no reason to be alarmed, and we hope you'll enjoy the rest of your flight. By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?"

No sensible solution would involve jettisoning, say, the engine or the wings. Resources vital to the plane’s continued safe operation would definitely not be at the top of any list of items earmarked for dropping into the drink.

Back on the ground, however, we now find ourselves in a similar situation as the nation’s economic engine sputters and stalls, faltering beneath its own weight. Or perhaps pilot error is partly to blame?

Initiatives aimed at cutting proven environmental safeguards to achieve short-term budget savings may temporarily lift our threatened craft but will ultimately result in an abrupt and unscheduled landing far short of the intended destination. Many of the federal- and state-level cuts now being proposed in the guise of budget reduction and trimming bloated government will immediately compromise the nation’s basic infrastructure — costing us much more in the long run.

We simply cannot afford to dawdle as the plane continues its unstable and mostly downward trajectory. It’s important to have rules in place so we can proceed with the public interest at the forefront. And it’s incumbent upon those passengers with any lick of sense to hit the button and notify the stewardess immediately.

Sure, it seems like a hassle to ensure that your tray table is stowed, that any carry-on items are secure beneath the seat in front of you, and that your seat back is in the upright position. But if one suddenly needed to quickly exit the aircraft, these rules would make a lot of sense.

The same holds true for the rules governing how we manage our treasured national forests. These public lands belong to all Americans, providing us with clean drinking water, healthy air and opportunities to experience wildlife and nature.

Surely, you can't be serious.”

“I am serious — and don't call me Shirley!”

This is a critical time for forest policy. Despite increasing worries in every other part of our lives these days, there’s bipartisan public support for land conservation and for maintaining the integrity of our public lands. The national forests of the Southern Appalachians, along with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, are the most contiguous, unfragmented green spaces in the region, providing all of us with innumerable health, economic and ecological benefits.

Given the importance of these lands both to our region and to the nation as a whole, we must keep strong rules in place, giving clear guidance to those responsible for managing these properties — i.e. keeping our “plane” aloft and steady, and protecting the investment in this country’s natural capital for years to come.

In the wake of debate over widespread, destructive activities that were then being broadly applied, the National Forest Management Act of 1976 was designed to counter further damage to natural ecosystems on public lands.

President Obama’s recently released proposal for revising the law would replace the rules (developed in 1982) that now govern these lands — including the Southeast’s much-recovered national forests. The planning rule now under consideration will provide the guidelines within which all national forests develop and adopt their forest plans.

A balanced, science-based approach will ensure that the brook trout and black bear can thrive, and that our children (and theirs) can experience wildlife and wilderness adventures while continuing to benefit from the clean air and water our public lands provide — not to mention the employment opportunities and resources for local communities.

This is your captain speaking, I have turned on the fasten-seatbelts sign, as we expect some turbulence ahead. I’ve also decided to turn the controls of this craft over to you passengers.”

Public participation in forest planning is critical for a number of reasons — not least of which is ensuring that all voices are heard.

The draft forest plan rule is open to public scrutiny and comment through Monday, May 16. It’s imperative that the agency hear from those who understand the value of public forests. These officials need to know that you want a planning rule that includes strong water-quality and wildlife-protection standards, a commitment to applying the best available science, and an open process that makes it easy for the public to participate. The time is now.

“Flight attendants, please prepare for takeoff.”

— Asheville resident Mark Shelley is director of the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition.

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