Archived News

Forest Service backs off planning timeline

fr forestryIt wasn’t long before the management planning process for the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests got heated and emotional, eventually causing the U.S. Forest Service to ease up on its original goal of releasing a draft plan this June.  

“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from our partners and a lot of the collaborative groups that have formed around the forest plan revision,” said James Melonas, deputy forest supervisor for North Carolina’s national forests. “That work to bring a bunch of folks together takes time, so we decided to take our foot off the accelerator a little bit.”

Once completed, the forest management plan will govern the direction of the million-acre Pisgah-Nantahala forest for the next two decades. That’s a tall order, taller still because the planning process is one of the first to fall under the new 2012 planning rule.

The mantra of the new process was transparency, a promise to put the plans out for all to see even while the drafts were in draft form. The Forest Service held umpteen public meetings to gather input on hot-button issues and to share its first stab at what the forest’s management areas might be and where they might be located.

That may not have been a good thing. 

“I hate to say it, but they sort of shot themselves in the foot in the way that came across, I think,” said Bill Van Horn, a hiking enthusiast who, among other things, heads up Franklin’s Appalachian Trail Community Committee.

Related Items


Lurch about logging

A lot of the controversy had to do with the management areas the Forest Service unveiled this fall. The preliminary plans called for whittling down the 22 management areas used in the current plan to 16 and included a map showing some tentative boundary lines for those 16 management areas. 

The map showed 700,000 of the forest’s 1 million acres as eligible for logging, sparking ire from environmental groups. A widely publicized press release from the Southern Environmental Law Center, for example, said the plan called for “industrial-scale logging in the vast majority” of the forest.

That’s not the case at all, the Forest Service contended. 

“The intent was to be transparent — that this was a very first step in the process,” said Heather Luczak, assistant forest planner for North Carolina national forests.

“Unfortunately, some saw that more as a proposal for moving forward. Anytime we open ourselves up to that level of transparency, there’s some vulnerability.”

Those meetings were meant to be a discussion about the different management areas and what parts of the forest could fall into each category, Luczak said, not a debate about where the lines fell. The lines would get redrawn plenty of times before any draft plan was released, and anyway, the Forest Service couldn’t cut 700,000 acres even if it wanted to. 

“The laws are already in place that don’t let you cut on rivers or steep areas, and that narrows down on well over half of those 700,000 acres,” said David Whitmire, program chairman for the N.C. Bowhunters Association and co-chair of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council, a collaborative group of sportsmen developing recommendations for the forest plan. “They’re not going to go out and cut 300,000 acres at one time. They barely cut 1,000 acres last year.”

On the heels of the announcement about management areas that upset environmental groups came a list of potential wilderness areas that threw sportsmen and loggers for a loop. 

 “I guess it could have been done somewhat different, because it definitely got folks riled up,” Van Horn said. 


The road ahead

Going forward, the Forest Service plans to take a few months to make sure everyone’s on the same page as far as background information goes and identify common themes in desires for the forest. 

And, also, to give the three collaborative groups working to hash out differences — the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership, Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council and Restoration Collaborative — a chance to do that. 

“Within the partnership, there’s a wide range of perspectives, and it takes time to come to a substantial agreement,” said Josh Kelly, public lands biologist for MountainTrue and a member of the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership’s leadership team. 

The partnership — the group includes representatives from more than 40 organizations ranging from The Wilderness Society to the National Wild Turkey Federation to the Backcountry Horsemen of North Carolina — is not in agreement yet, and the group is mirroring the Forest Service by taking a step back itself, Kelly said. 

“We’re all trying to get a sense of each other’s values and what we want to get out of the plan and make it a full group and participatory process,” he said. 

The Forest Service plans to have another round of public meetings in April and May, and expects the timeline for the plan’s development to get pushed back by several months. The exact format of the upcoming meetings remains to be seen. 

Van Horn is hoping for something with a more local feel than the big meetings led by representatives from the state Forest Service office. 

“If they [the district rangers] would have called in the stakeholders that they personally know and had a discussion around the table where the hiking folks are meeting the two or three folks that run sawmills in Franklin and the various hunting groups that are based out of Franklin, it would have been more relaxed, informal,” Van Horn said. 

More might get done, he said, if folks sat down over a cup of coffee with people they knew rather than declaring their position before a room of 100 strangers. 

“We can agree to disagree, and that’s OK in some points,” Van Horn said. 


Trust a must

For its part, the Forest Service is asking for the public’s trust that it is doing its best to be transparent and hear all perspectives.

That might be a tough sell for some, Kelly said. 

“I think there’s some skeletons in the closet from the past 20 or 30 years,” said Kelly, though clarifying that he himself trusts the Forest Service. “Just beyond the fact that some people don’t trust government agencies, there’s a certain enmity toward the Forest Service, and for a variety of reasons.”

Issues such as ill-conceived logging projects in the past or property disagreements, to name a few. 

Van Horn believes the problem can be ameliorated through education. 

“There’s a couple of folks in all the different camps that maybe need a little more education so that they can speak with facts as opposed to emotions, and if the Forest Service can afford to do it, I think they need to focus a little more on the education piece,” he said. 


Not a do-over

While the Forest Service is taking a step back from its original timeline, it’s not trashing all the work that’s been done over the past year, Luczak said. 

“The work that we’ve done up to this point is still going to be very useful as we move forward, but we will be taking a closer look at both the management areas as well as the wilderness inventory evaluation,” she said. 

In other words, the documents out now will inform the direction of the plan, but any part of that is subject to change. 

It’s been a long road and will continue to be a trek. But the diverse groups of people who love the forest are hopeful that the work will pay off. 

“I think it’s very possible for there to be a forest plan that makes things a lot better than they currently are,” Kelly said. “Not just some better, but a lot better.”

Leave a comment

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.