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Macon commissioners pass on wilderness resolution

fr wildernessMacon County commissioners maintained their stance against creating more wilderness areas in the county despite The Wilderness Society’s attempt to change their minds.

The U.S. Forest Service is in the midst of updating its Forest Management Plan for the Nantahala-Pisgah national forests and has presented a list of land that could potentially be designated as wilderness. Since almost half of Macon County is made up of national forest, county leaders and residents are often concerned about that land becoming more restricted by the Forest Service. 

In July 2014, the commissioners unanimously passed a resolution proclaiming the board was not in favor of the Forest Service designating more national forest land as protected wilderness areas. 

Members of several outdoors and conservation organizations attended the commissioners’ meeting last week to ask the board to consider passing a resolution to support the U.S. Forest Service recommendations for wilderness even though those recommendations haven’t officially been made yet. 

Bill Vanhorn with the Nantahala Hiking Club told commissioners he was the spokesperson for the 13 businesses and organizations asking the board to support the public input process by supporting the Forest Service’s recommendations. 

The request letter to the county was signed and supported by the Franklin Bird Club, Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust, Southern Appalachian Plant Society, Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine, The Wilderness Society, Stay and Play in the Smokies, Bartram Trail Society, Wild South, Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, Franklin Appalachian Trail Community Council, Outdoor 76 and Highlands Plateau Audubon Society.

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“We all agree that 4 percent of forest service land in Macon County designated as wilderness … is probably not enough,” Vanhorn said. “We agree the best way to achieve a forest management plan that represents all interests is to defer to the public process of the Forest Service. This process allows for all voices to be heard.”

The wilderness agenda item at the meeting attracted a room full of people that spoke out on both sides of the issue. Hunters and people in the timber industry were opposed to more wilderness area because they say it further restricts access to the land and the roads going through the land. 

Brent Martin, Southern Appalachian director of The Wilderness Society, said he agreed that access to forestland was a problem, but he blamed it on budget cuts and not wilderness designations. 

“We agree on many issues — the Forest Service is underfunded. Their budget has been cut by a third and they’ve lost so much of their discretionary budget in the Appalachians to fight fires in the West, so it’s way more complex than standing up and attacking wilderness,” he said. “And wilderness only denies access for motorized vehicles. I think we need to look at the real problems like budgeting and planning issues.”

Commissioner Paul Higdon said he appreciated everyone’s comments on the matter, but he said he’s seen firsthand how the land usage has changed in his 66 years living in Macon County. He said he supports the work the groups do to protect the county’s greatest natural resources, but it came down to locals having a lack of trust in the federal government.

“We’ve lost access to that property — we have continued to watch that access diminish without anything being done,” Higdon said. “It’s just that little bit of a lack of trust of losing more access. It’s nothing personal.”

Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin reminded everyone that eight other counties in the region also passed resolutions opposing more wilderness areas. While he agrees with many of the concerns on both sides of the issue, he said the board’s position had not changed since it passed the resolution in 2014. However, he disagreed with Vanhorn’s comment that the commissioners’ resolution hindered the Forest Service’s public input process. 

“We’ll publically say we support the public process — it helps us have the conversation we’re having tonight,” Corbin said. “As far as passing another resolution, I feel like we expressed our opinion just like everyone else and I don’t know if the opinion has changed.”

Corbin asked the audience not to overestimate the commissioners’ powers since the ultimate decision on creating more wilderness areas rests with Congress.

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