Forest users debate pros and cons of potential wilderness recommendations
Out of the gate, the U.S. Forest Service’s first stab at listing potential wilderness areas in the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests met with criticism following its release in late November.
Whether concerned about which areas were on the list, which weren’t or the timing of the release, nearly everybody had something negative to say about the wilderness inventory.
“My overall opinion is that the process is incomplete and out of order with the rest of the plan right now,” said Josh Kelly of the Western North Carolina Alliance, soon to change its name to MountainTrue.
“For me to feel comfortable about supporting any wilderness, I need to know more information than what is in the criteria that is given out,” said David Whitmire, program chairman for the N.C. Bowhunters Association and owner of Headwaters Outfitters.
“I think it’s a good start. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include all the areas that should have been included,” said Hugh Irwin of The Wilderness Society.
Though the list generated concern from multiple groups, it’s just a first pass at narrowing down which areas of the national forest the Forest Service should recommend in its new management plan for congressional designation as federally protected wilderness. The criteria for inclusion in the inventory were a good bit looser than the criteria to earn recommendation in the plan.
Inventoried areas had to:
• Either be 5,000 acres, adjacent to existing wilderness or self-contained to a smaller area, as in a canyon or an island.
• Not have undergone any noticeable recent vegetation management such as logging or fire.
• Be at least 500 feet away from any public roads.
After taking in a round of public comment on the inventory, the Forest Service will put these areas through another, more rigorous, round of evaluation to decide which ones should be recommended. The long list of considerations will include:
• Unique ecological or geologic features.
• The area’s size and shape, which indicate its ability to be managed for wild characteristics.
• Opportunity for solitude and primitive recreation.
• Presence of invasive species.
• Type of fish and wildlife habitat.
• Current land and recreational uses.
“It’s likely that just a subset of those in the inventory will be in the proposed plan for recommended wilderness,” said Heather Luczak, acting forest planner.
Though the draft management areas the Forest Service came out with earlier this fall are subject to change, Luczak said, inclusion in the inventory does not mean that inventoried areas not earning wilderness recommendation will wind up with some higher level of protection than if they had not been included in the inventory in the first place.
“The directives that we’re following are clear that inclusion in the inventory does not dictate any specific type of management moving forward,” Luczak said. “That’s not to say that we can’t consider that moving forward.”
The Forest Service will be relying partially on comments from forest users to arrive at its refined list of areas. Yays and nays tend to differ depending on whether someone’s into hunting deer, hiking the trails, speeding along on a mountain bike or preserving fragile ecosystems, but some themes emerged among forest users when discussing which areas should make the cut and which should not.
Nantahala National Forest
“From Bill Van Horn’s point of view, I’m fine with all of those,” said Bill Van Horn, co-chair of the Franklin Appalachian Trail Community Committee and past president of Nantahala Hiking Club, of the areas in the Nantahala and Tusquitee districts. “I doubt if all of them would ever get through the whole process to be federally designated as wilderness, but if they did it just means we’d have to maintain with a crosscut saw and axes as opposed to a chainsaw.”
Because no mechanized or motorized equipment is allowed in wilderness, trail crews in wilderness areas have to use old-school equipment like crosscut saws rather than chainsaws. That means it takes more effort to maintain any given area, but Van Horn believes wilderness is worth the trouble.
“Considering wilderness is the greatest protection we could give our public lands, I don’t have a problem with it,” he said.
In particular, he’d like to see the Chunky Gal, Barkers Creek and Scream Ridge extensions to the Southern Nantahala Wilderness make the designation.
Jim Gray, on the other hand, isn’t really a fan of adding wilderness to the Nantahala National Forest. The Ruffed Grouse Society member feels that wilderness designation in general would be bad news for already suffering game populations — most game species require young forest habitat, which is largely created by timber cuts and fires, and those treatments are either not allowed or harder to perform in wilderness areas — and takes issue with several areas in particular.
“I have objected and still object to the Wesser [Bald], the Wayah Bald [called Tellico Bald in the wilderness inventory] and the Chunky Gal Wilderness [Inventory] Areas,” he said. “I don’t feel that they really meet the definition of wilderness because I know for a fact that the Wayah Wilderness Area has Forest Service roads crisscrossing through it.”
The Wilderness Society, meanwhile, believes that several areas in the Nantahala should make the list of recommended wilderness. Extensions to the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock, Ellicott Rock and Southern Nantahala wilderness areas make its list, as do the Snowbird, Unicoi Mountains, Cantrell Top and Tusquitee Bald areas.
Hugh Irwin, ecologist for The Wilderness Society, is especially enthusiastic about Snowbird, which is currently a Wilderness Study Area, and Tusquitee Bald.
In addition to exceptionally pure water, at Tusquitee “There are a number of rare species in the Fires Creek stream and in terrestrial areas around it,” Irwin said. “The area’s very important to Cherokee history. There are Cherokee trails in the area and a rim trail that goes around the high elevations around the watershed that’s over 20 miles, one of the most significant circuit hikes in our mountains.”
Some inventoried areas in the Nantahala, meanwhile, The Wilderness Society would rather not see designated as wilderness but believes should be managed as backcountry or special biological areas.
Examples include Boteler Peak, Cheoah Bald, Tellico Bald, Wesser Bald, Siler Bald and Terrapin Mountain.
“We feel that all of those are valuable backcountry areas that should be protected in some way in the forest plan,” Irwin said.
Pisgah National Forest
Concerns from mountain bikers are a big part of the conversation in Pisgah National Forest. Pisgah has a lot more mountain biking trails and a lot more mountain bikers than Nantahala, so several areas in the inventory met with universal skepticism due to high volumes of mountain bike use. Bicycles are not allowed in wilderness areas.
“Those areas have a high concentration of trails that are heavily used for recreation, including mountain biking,” said Andy Zivinsky of Nantahala Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association.
In fact, SORBA has come out with a position statement opposing wilderness designation in the Daniel Ridge, Laurel Mountain, Cedar Rock Mountain, South Mills River, Woods Mountain and Jarrett areas.
“Those would be examples of spots that have tremendous mountain bike use, and nobody’s trying to put an end to that,” Kelly said. “They all deserve backcountry management, but they’re fine as backcountry mountain biking.”
Though Whitmire’s first love is hunting, as an outfitter he’s also concerned about mountain biking opportunities, as mountain bikers make up a sizable contingent of customers.
The areas that SORBA’s opposed to designating also appear in The Wilderness Society’s “no” list, along with Bald Mountain.
Ruth Hartzler of the Carolina Mountain Club agrees with excluding Bald Mountain, simply because designating that area would keep trail maintainers from using power tools on the portion of the Appalachian Trail that runs through it.
“There are areas around the Appalachian Trail that we would request not be wilderness, at least not right where the trail goes, so that our trail maintainers can be efficient in maintaining the trail, but in general we do support wilderness designation,” Hartzler said.
The Wilderness Society would like to see the Middle Prong Wilderness Extension, the Craggy Mountain area and about 1,600 acres of the 4,800-acre Shining Rock Extensions recommended.
“It’s a smaller piece right up against the existing wilderness,” Irwin said of the Shining Rock recommendations. “There’s a mountain bike trail that goes up through the area that we’re not including and some potential spruce restoration area.”
Whitmire, however, isn’t so sure about these recommendations. While he can say offhand he’s opposed to recommending the areas containing mountain biking trails, he also has some questions about the Shining Rock and Middle Prong extensions. He wonders if they might be better suited for wildlife management, especially for elk as the herd continues to grow and seek new habitat.
“They’re increasing and I know the [N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission] is trying to do some more habitat work back toward Haywood and Madison County, but that would be perfect for elk in the Shining Rock Area,” Whitmire said.
He also has some questions about how wilderness designation would affect hunting opportunities. Those opportunities have declined over the last few decades, and he questions how wilderness designation would affect species such as white-tailed deer.
“The deer populations in Shining Rock, that’s where I used to go,” he said. “Back in the early ‘80s there were deer all over that country. Very few deer up there now. Very few.”
More than anything, though, Whitmire feels like he just needs more information before endorsing any of these areas for wilderness.
“I’m not an anti-wilderness person, but I know that there’s repercussions for everything that you do,” he said, “and if you go out and make something wilderness without those details I talked about, I feel very uneasy about that.”
The Forest Service is hoping to glean some of those details from this round of comments. This forest planning process has had a lot of emphasis on public input, with the Forest Service getting even preliminary planning materials out to the public for a response.
As the wilderness inventory goes through the scrutiny of public opinion and Forest Service evaluation, Luczak hopes to wind up with a list that everyone can, if not fully agree on, at least see as a valid, well-informed conclusion.
“It’s more of a holistic consideration of designation as well as the public input,” Luczak said. “The evaluation gets at those specific characteristics of an area.”
Once written into the plan, the list of recommended wilderness areas would go to the regional forester who could forward it on to the chief of the Forest Service, who could then pass it to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, who could then forward it to the president and Congress.
The road to wilderness designation will be a long one for any area on this list of potentials.
To help guide the U.S. Forest Service’s potential wilderness evaluation process, submit comments on the potential additions by Monday, Jan. 5.
A list of topics that comments should address is available online at 1.usa.gov/1B9zQw9 under the “evaluation phase” heading. The evaluation will include considerations such as whether invasive species are present, what kinds of plants and wildlife are there, current recreational uses, presence of existing structures and roads, removal from the sights and sounds of civilization and geologic and topographic features.
The short version
• With some exceptions, areas that would be additions to existing wilderness areas seem to be widely supported.
• Many of the potential wilderness areas in the Pisgah District — Cedar Rock Mountain, Laurel Mountain and South Mills River, especially — are widely opposed for wilderness designation due to mountain biking activities.
• By and large, sportsmen are hesitant to support any additional wilderness, while mountain bikers are in favor of designation in areas without mountain biking trails. Hikers are in favor of wilderness but would like to see some consideration of the difficulties of wilderness trail maintenance in the recommendations.
• The Wilderness Society’s list of recommended additions includes at least parts of all of the extensions of existing wilderness areas as well as eight other areas. The remaining 16 areas it recommends for management either as backcountry or as a special biological area. In many cases, that’s higher protection than the management areas currently proposed.
• Overflow Creek Wilderness Study Area was left off of the original inventory, but that was simply an oversight, according to the Forest Service. The area is now part of the inventory.
• The Wilderness Society lists seven of its North Carolina Mountain Treasures areas that were not included in the inventory and recommends these for backcountry or biological management.