The Nantahala and Pisgah Forest Revised Plan released Jan. 21 will guide the management of more than 1 million acres of public forestland in Western North Carolina for the next decade and beyond, complete after eight years of work and collaboration.
The 360-page plan will guide two of the busiest national forests in the country - combined the Nantahala and Pisgah draw about 5.1 million visitors a year - and all their many uses, including hunting, fishing, hiking and mountain biking, a home for wildlife, protectors of clean water and wilderness, an economic driver for the region with its timber products, cultural and natural resources and as a haven in the face of climate change.
It's been a long process with a huge amount of collaboration and input from partners and local governments, said James Melonas, forest supervisor for national forests in North Carolina. Although initial reaction from some of the partners has drawn criticism as well as praise.
"We feel really good about where we landed on the plan," he said. "We feel the plan really advances all the different interests that we've heard from over that time and that it's setting us up for the next generation of managing the Nantahala and Pisgah."
She pointed folks to the much shorter, 26-page reader's guide, with visuals, key themes and a breakdown of where to find specific topics within the plan.
"It feels great to get to this point, to be able to share with the public how we've incorporated their ideas," Aldridge said.
Starting with the initial notice in October 2013, the Forest Service has hosted 49 face-to-face and virtual meetings at locations throughout the forest during the planning process, according to the plan, and Forest Service staff attended more than 120 meetings with collaborative groups, 65 with local, state and federal agencies, and met with Native American tribes 17 times, including the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
The plan's release kicks off the final 60-day objection period for those parties who submitted substantive comments during the plan’s development and a 90-day period to resolve those objections.
After that five-month objection process, the plan can be signed and implementation can begin, Aldridge said.
Until that time, the forest service will be operating under the current plan signed in 1987 and amended in 1994, with more than 26 updates since. Each unit of the U.S. Forest Service is required by law to revise its management plan every 15 years.
Over the past three decades, scientific information, agency and public understanding as well as economic, social and ecological conditions have shifted, the plan says, changing management emphasis from outputs to outcomes.
Aldridge said the plan divides the forest into 12 distinct geographies and establishes goals around four themes: connecting people to land, sustaining healthy ecosystems, providing clean and abundant water, and partnering with others.
"I think that that will really become the foundation for a lot of our work together," she said. "Those are really built by the input from individuals."
It establishes a vision for each ecological community on the forest, identifies work beyond U.S. Forest Service capacity that can be accomplished with partners, places greater emphasis on the places and uses that are important to people and designs alternatives based on shared values , according to the reader's guide.
The plan will contribute to multiple uses of the forest, from timber harvest and recreation to wildlife and wilderness areas, improve the forest’s health and resiliency, and improve or maintain wildlife habitat and clean water.
"We definitely feel really good about where we've landed on the plan and collaboration," Melonas said.
He said they wouldn't be surprised to see some objections with such a large and complex plan, but feel confident about being able to work through those.
A big step toward NC's first National Scenic Area
One addition in the plan is the special designation of an 11,500-acre Big Ivy/Craggy Mountains Forest Scenic Area in Buncombe County, which Will Harlan, organizer with Friends of Big Ivy and I Heart Pisgah, said leaves just one step before it becomes the state's first national scenic area: a congressional designation.
It is one of five Forest Scenic Areas included in the plan, alongside Looking Glass Rock, John Rock in the Pisgah and Whitewater Falls and Glen Falls in the Nantahala.
"I think the forest service heard us loud and clear and essentially created a new designation," Harlan said. "It's really exciting to see them recognize years of public input and support."
The designation would essentially keep Craggy just the way it is, he said, with 3,000 acres of old growth forests, dozens of waterfalls and rare and endangered species and world-class trails for hiking, trail running and mountain biking. It also includes part of the Mountains-to Sea-Trail, spruce and fir forests and trout streams that make it a fishing and hunting destination.
It's an oft-overlooked and underappreciated area just 15 minutes from downtown Asheville, Harlan said.
Creating a national scenic area there has received overwhelming support from different forest users and the Asheville City Council and Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, he said.
One of North Carolina's representatives in Congress must put forth a bill, and Harlan said, to start the ball rolling toward designation.
There are only 10 National Scenic Areas in the country, including four in the Southeast, Harlan noted.
"North Carolina is left out, and I think we've got the most spectacular scenery of all," he said. "Craggy is the crown jewel of Appalachia."
"We received a lot of interest in the Craggy Mountains area and specifically a campaign to designate a National Scenic Area," Aldridge said.
The Forest Service took a multi-faceted approach, she said, designating more wilderness area than what exists there already, dedicating the Forest Scenic Area to protect scenic values for the area that's heavily viewed from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The scenic designation will allow for recreation and some other uses that wouldn't be allowed in the wilderness area, like commercial filming, Aldridge said, with Harlan noting that pieces of "Last of the Mohicans" and "The Hunger Games" were filmed in the area.
The Shope Creek area to the south of the Craggies will be allocated to the forest service's interface management area focusing on recreation and improving the trail system there, which currently has no dedicated trails but receives heavy use.
"We didn't just adopt the proposal that was given," Aldridge said. "We did look at the merits, we recommend a portion for wilderness, a portion for Forest Scenic Area and then a portion to our interface management area."
Adaptability in the face of climate change
“Climate change will continue to directly and indirectly impact the Forests’ natural resources,” the plan says, noting increased threats from fire, invasive species, disease, extreme weather and drought. “However, uncertainty in the degree of climate change and its associated impacts to ecosystems remains.”
With about 73 million metric tons of carbon currently sequestered in the forests, the Pisgah and Nantahala play an important role in carbon sequestration and storage, serving as a carbon sink, it says, and by using and adjusting management practices, the Forest Service can promote the heath of its forests.
Managing those forests in the face of climate change includes monitoring for invasive species, restoring native vegetation in streamside zones, and preparing for intense storms with forest health and diversity like control of soil erosion, relocating high-risk roads and trails and more.
The new plan emphasizes being adaptive, Aldridge said, the first Pisgah and Nantahala plan that mentions climate change.
"We've been managing for resilient conditions in the face of change," she said. "We have great science but we don't know everything so we need this plan to be resilient for the next 20 years, and we need to be able to pivot if we have increased storm events or if we have more invasive species."
The plan has strategies Aldridge described as a toolbox: not precise and prescriptive rules that may become a hurdle in 15 years.
"Our understanding of the ecosystems and the diversity that we have here on Nantahala-Pisgah has increased dramatically over that time," Melonas said, meaning since the current plan was written. "And our plan really looks at all those different ecozones and manages for those conditions within each of those."
Aldridge noted that when the current plan was written, mountain biking wasn't a big activity, one example of different recreational pressures that are joining very traditional uses of the forests.
"In the updated plan, we've taken a lot more emphasis on the places and uses that are important to people and how the community engages with the national forest," she said.
A little help from friends
The plan identifies Tier 1 and Tier 2 objectives: the first including goals based on a continuation of existing Forest Service budgets and capacity, with Tier 2 reflecting what could be accomplished with the help of partner resources, according to the plan.
“By outlining what we may be able to achieve with the help of others, we aim to incentivize shared stewardship and build partnerships to achieve more work on the ground,” it says.
The Forest Service has faced a shrinking budget in recent years, down by 25% between FY 2015-2019, from $20 million to $15 million, a level that Melonas says has stayed flat for the past four or five years.
That tiered concept came out of the Forest Service's work with partners, he said, with Tier 1 based on the current internal capacity of the Forest Service.
"The Tier 2 is really what can we accomplish together, working with partners, leveraging resources to do more," Melonas said. "And we know that a lot of our partners are ready to come to the table to help us achieve those goals."
Pisgah and Nantahala are some of the most visited forests in the country, he said,visitation that's risen with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Part of the plan is managing that use, Melonas said, inviting a diverse group of users and working with community partners to sustain trails and recreation areas into the future.
"Everyone loves these forests," he said. "There's incredible passion and connection to Nantahala-Pisgah, and even sometimes when different folks may disagree on things, the baseline is we all love these forests and want to see them thrive."
He expressed his gratitude to everyone that's participated and said he's never seen such a sustained level of commitment over such a long period of time to work together for the future of the forest.
A hope for results
David Whitmire, co-owner of Headwaters Outfitters in Rosman and head of the N.C. Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council said he's excited to see the plan finally come together, especially in terms of what it means for hunters who have seen wildlife populations drop in public forest lands.
"It was really a lot of validation for a lot of sportsmen because we have seen steep declines in whitetail deer populations and grouse populations on our national forest lands," he said. "This process and a lot of studies also recognize the lack of active management and how that affects wildlife species' populations."
Specifically, it's a lack of young forest, he said, something that's ramped up in the new plan, which moves from 650 acres of new young forest per year to a Tier 1 goal of 650-1,200 acres, and a Tier 2 goal of 1,200-3,200 acres.
"That was a really important part of the new plan and looking at what's underrepresented on the forest," Melonas said. "The younger forest is really lacking, not just for game, but for migratory species as well."
Whitmire said including those Tier 2 goals gives him hope that other partners beyond the Forest Service who want to see that young forest can contribute.
"It's an honest look at what they can do and what they can't do," Whitmire said. "At least now we can have some accountability."
Whitmire said the Forest Service has done a "fantastic job" and worked hard to bring sportsmen to the table. Going forward, he hopes to see results and hopes that the collaboration early on leads to fewer arguments at the project phase.
"I think the hunting culture on public lands in Western North Carolina is really in peril if we don't have abundant game on our lands," he said. "I think when you lose the game populations, you lose your traditions and culture."
'A missed opportunity'
Others, though, saw recommendations from collaborative groups go ignored.
Patrick Hunter, managing attorney in Asheville for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said he was still working to wrap his arms around the massive plan Jan. 21, but could already see where some recommendations made by the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership weren't included.
The Partnership includes a whole suite of interested parties, he said, including SELC, wildlife and conservation groups, timber groups and more. He said it looks so far as if the forest service"cherry-picked" from the group's recommendations.
"The missed opportunity here to me is that the forest service didn't really embrace the Partnership alternative and appears to have departed from it in some pretty significant ways," Hunter said.
One example he noted is that acreage dedicated as ecological interest areas, is proposed for 22,195 acres in the new plan, opposed to the 68,000 recommended by the Partnership.
The group proposed increases in actively managed areas, too, he said, as long as they were paired with protecting other areas.
"We'll be taking a really close look at it," Hunter said.
Harlan too, who's been involved with the forest plan for seven years, said he'll be evaluating the plan more carefully to decide if he'll make an objection.
He said the forest service has recommended around 49,000 additional acres of wilderness, but he needs to dig through the details more, describing a forest plan as essentially a blueprint for 1.1 million acres of publicly-owned lands to decide how much gets logged and how much gets protected.
The plan shows a quadrupling in the amount of timber harvests in the country's most popular national forest, Harlan said, one that he feels ought to be prioritized for its recreational and ecological value.
"Asheville is a tourist hub and Pisgah is primarily used for recreation," he said. "The Forest Service's own numbers reflect that."
He said the Forest Service should be applauded for its public outreach, receiving a record number of public comments.
"I think the public has spoken loud and clear," Harlan said.
The revised forest plan, environmental impact statement, and how to file an objection are available at fs.usda.gov/goto/nfsnc/nprevision.
Derek Lacey covers environment, growth and development for the Asheville Citizen Times. Reach him at DLacey@gannett.com or 828-417-4842 and find him on Twitter @DerekAVL.
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Final Nantahala and Pisgah plan charts next era of management