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Commissioners get an earful about wilderness resolution

fr maconwildernessA roomful of hunters and hikers turned out at last week’s Macon County Commissioners meeting. It was the first meeting after Franklin Mayor Bob Scott went public with a plea for the county to reconsider a resolution it passed in July against any additional wilderness designations in Macon County.

“I would urge the Macon County Board of Commissioners to rethink its resolution opposing more wilderness areas as these few wilderness areas will be an attraction to Macon County,” Scott said in his Nov. 28 letter to commissioners. “I am asking only that you lobby for a few more areas being set aside for wilderness designation. The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.”

Scott wasn’t present at the meeting, but references to his letter — and strong stances on both sides of the issue — were. 

“I urge you to stand by the resolution you passed on July the eighth,” said Ruffed Grouse Society member Jim Gray, speaking for the 20 or so hunters cramming the small meeting room. “It was a courageous action and one that will prove to be the right decision over the years to come.”

Gray went on to cite the declining share of young forest habitat — a greater diversity of species live in young forest than in old — in the national forest and the difficulties wilderness designation poses to the timber cuts and burns that create young forest. Wilderness designation also keeps out some users, such as mountain bikers, so adding wilderness with no maintained trails or roads would “benefit only an elite few,” especially during the winter, Gray said.

Already, Gray said, hunters are leaving North Carolina to bag their game rather than hunting here at home because low game populations make chances slimmer here. 

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“It’s time for our national forest to achieve balance between being turned into quasi national parks and managed for their original intention, which is multiple use,” he said. “The pendulum has turned too far toward preservation.”

Brent Martin, a Cowee resident who works for The Wilderness Society, was also there. He said he’d flown up to Canada to bag grouse that year, but he said that’s no reason to oppose wilderness at home. 

“The Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest is 1.1 million acres,” he said. “Only a little over 6 percent of that is protected as wilderness, so to try to blame that for the declining grouse population is quite a stretch.”

The divisiveness of the room, Martin said, was troubling, especially considering that the planning process will go on for another two years. He doesn’t see The Wilderness Society’s recommendations for new wilderness as excessive. The U.S. Forest Service has listed 215,000 acres as possible wilderness, while The Wilderness Society is recommending that about 80,000 be given that designation.  Martin does, however, see the commissioners’ resolution as a divisive and uncompromising position. 

Bill Van Horn, co-chair of Franklin’s Appalachian Trail Community Committee, said he favors some additional wilderness but was upset, more than anything, by the commissioners’ quick action on the topic. He said commissioners should have listened to experts on multiple sides of the question before taking a position. 

“We the Community Committee submit that there are some areas adjacent to the Appalachian Trail that are suitable to be considered as wilderness that would not significantly impact any other uses,” Van Horn said. “We suggest that you let the forest planning process with all its experts on either side go through that process and come out with a recommendation for all of us.”

Franklin is lucky to be so close to the Appalachian Trail and should always be looking for ways to cultivate that special relationship, Van Horn said. Wilderness could be one way to do that. 

Commissioners seemed a bit flummoxed by the importance those in attendance placed on their position. 

“We don’t make that decision,” Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin said of the wilderness designation process. “That’s made by Congress. I’m really a little taken aback by the questioning of our opinion.”

“That was just our opinion at the time,” agreed Commissioner Ronnie Beale. “If the Forest Service comes back and makes a different decision, then our resolution is moot.”

But a board of commissioners expressing an opinion is not the same thing as a private citizen doing likewise, Van Horn countered. Commissioners should have done some more research and gotten a better feel for public opinion before staking out such an absolute position.  

“When you express your opinion as the commissioners of Macon County, I take that to mean that you’re expressing the opinion of 51 percent of the county,” Van Horn said. “I’m not 100 percent sure that you had 51 percent of the voters in Macon County behind you when you passed that resolution.” 

“When a governmental body passes a resolution, it carries quite a bit of weight with not only the Forest Service but any federal agency,” agreed Scott in a follow-up interview. 

Commissioners made no move to renege on their resolution. However, Corbin said, he hopes to continue working with people on both sides of the wilderness issue. 

“Let me agree wholeheartedly with something that Brent [Martin] said,” Corbin said. “I think people need to work together for conflict resolution.” 

For those involved in the forest plan, that will be the challenge of the next two years. 

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