Forest Service evaluates potential wilderness areas
The cadre of groups helping the U.S. Forest Service work toward a new management plan for the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest recently got a first peek at one of the most controversial aspects of the planning process — the proposals for new wilderness designation.
“This is the first real concrete opportunity we’ve had to see what the Forest Service is thinking,” said Richard Mode of the N.C. Wildlife Federation. “I’m thrilled to have an opportunity to look at them.”
Wilderness has been a hot-button topic since the planning process first took off in 2014, with some groups pushing for tens of thousands of additional acres and others declaring that adding any wilderness at all would harm the forest more than help it.
“We know this is an issue that is probably the most polarizing, difficult issue, and so we wanted to put something out here to start a conversation,” said James Melonas, deputy forest supervisor for North Carolina’s national forests.
In fall 2015, the Forest Service released a list of 52 areas it would draw from to eventually develop recommendations for Congressional wilderness designation, with two other areas added later to bring the total to 54. The public was invited to comment and look at the areas on an interactive map, with the Forest Service taking that feedback into account when arriving at this — wilderness evaluations, the next step in the wilderness recommendation process.
The evaluation process required the Forest Service to take each of those areas and describe how it does or doesn’t meet the criteria to be designated as wilderness. For example, wilderness areas should look natural and basically unaltered by man. They should provide opportunity for solitude and primitive recreation like hiking and camping.
The evaluation the Forest Service released this summer includes a separate write-up on each of the areas, discussing those qualifications. Along with the evaluation, the Forest Service released a document outlining some draft alternatives. Basically, the alternatives are different bundles of areas the Forest Service could choose to ask Congress to designate as wilderness. In the draft, there’s an alternative that says no new wilderness at all, one that lists various areas that should be recommended and a couple in the middle.
There is one step yet to go between evaluation and recommendation, however. Areas that progress from the evaluation phase will have to be analyzed to show how the wilderness designation would impact recreation, current management, resource condition and other parameters. The Forest Service will base its final recommendations on that analysis.
“We use as much data and information as we have, but ultimately it’s not a hard science,” Melonas explained. “We don’t put this into a computer and it pops out an answer. There’s a certain amount of judgment that comes into this, and that’s where we want to hear from folks.”
That’s not a request with which the Forest Service is likely to have much trouble. Throughout the process, a large number of people and groups has been involved, with the diversity of opinion among them rivaling that of the species inhabiting the 1 million acres of forest they’re hoping to protect.
In fact, by last spring opinion had become so heated that the Forest Service wound up slowing down its planning timeline to give divergent groups a chance to come together and talk things out. The result was the Stakeholders Forum for the Nantahala and Pisgah Forest Plan Revision, a 28-member group organized by the nonprofit National Forests Foundation to discuss issues related to the plan and deliver consensus-based recommendations to the Forest Service.
At the beginning of the planning process, the Forest Service had aimed to have a plan completed by March 2016. The current timeline anticipates releasing a draft plan in spring 2017 and approving a final by the end of that year.
“It’s been a challenging and at times frustrating process,” said Ben Prater, director for the regional Defenders of Wildlife office in Asheville and a member of the stakeholders forum. “I think there are a number of us that are really trying our best to find common ground, and I think a lot of us are starting to recognize and understand other people’s values and points of view.”
By and large, the divergent groups had good things to say about the Forest Service’s general process, and particularly about the fact that the evaluations — and management alternatives that could result in the information contained in them — are being released now, months ahead of when any kind of formal draft will be issued.
“They’re not behind the curtains doing things,” said David Whitmire, a member of the stakeholders forum and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council, said of the Forest Service. “They’re being very open about the process.”
“I’m glad that they released these draft alternatives and the wilderness evaluations and gave folks a chance to look at them,” agreed stakeholders forum member Josh Kelly of MountainTrue in Asheville. “I continue to think it’s a good move by the Forest Service to release things early.”
However, the cohesion ends when it comes to opinion on the meat of the documents, and that divide points to the split that’s pervaded the entire planning process. Some groups tend to prioritize management that bolsters game animal populations and are hesitant to endorse any new wilderness, while others believe that wilderness designation is the key to ecological preservation and want as much new acreage designated as possible.
“We’re definitely dissatisfied with the evaluation,” said Hugh Irwin, landscape conservation planner for The Wilderness Society’s Sylva office, which supports increased wilderness. “We feel like it has a lot of mistakes in it and also it doesn’t really follow the planning directive.”
Areas in question
For one thing, Irwin believes that several important areas were axed from further consideration as wilderness or downsized significantly.
The Overflow Creek area in Macon County is one of those. Congress made it a Wilderness Study Area in 1984, but a final decision on designation was never made. The Wilderness Society has declared the area a “Mountain Treasure” and pushed for designation, crying out when Overflow was accidently left off the original inventory list released in fall 2015. The Forest Service later added Overflow to the list.
“A number of groups have it as a priority, including The Wilderness Society, but also the Chattooga Conservancy and the Bartram Trail Society,” Irwin said.
However, the Forest Service evaluation decided that “the Overflow Creek area does not have wilderness characteristics across most of its area.” At 3,901 acres, the evaluation reads, it’s too small to really provide solitude and is bisected by a Forest Service road that “adversely affects manageability and opportunities for unconfined recreation.” “Highly developed trail structures and maintained wildlife openings detract from apparent naturalness,” and the sights and sounds of surrounding development impact the area, the evaluation says.
It’s worth noting, said forest planner Michelle Aldridge, that Overflow Creek didn’t get recommended during the Forest Service’s last planning process either.
But that’s not the only spot that Irwin and others in the conservation community feel got the shaft.
The Tusquitee Bald area, for instance, was drastically reduced in area, as was the Mackey Mountain area in the Grandfather Ranger District. The Nantahala Hiking Club had wanted the Wesser Bald area to get recommended, Kelly said, and he feels the area should have made it to the next stage of the planning process due to the fact that there’s not much out there except wildness anyway.
“For areas that no one in the public is asking for and that don’t have wilderness characteristics, I think the Forest Service can say at this stage, ‘Well, we’re not going to analyze further,’” Kelly said. “But for the areas that the public are asking for, I think it’s incumbent on the Forest Service to analyze those areas if they have a reasonable amount of wildness.”
The draft alternatives, Kelly said, don’t really reflect the full spectrum of opinion out there — it would behoove the Forest Service to revise them to include an alternative that more fully represents the wishes of the pro-wilderness folks.
Many of the debated areas were excluded at least partially because of impacts from the “sights and sounds” of nearby development — views that include towns and roads, and the roar of motors from area byways, for example. Irwin takes issue with that rationale. Wilderness legislation says that these sights and sounds can’t be “pervasive” but doesn’t stipulate that they have to be nonexistent, he said. And the 1975 Eastern Wilderness Act acknowledges that the standard for solitude will have to be different in the more populated Eastern U.S. than in the West.
Kelly agrees with that criticism and also sees a good deal of inconsistency in how the areas are evaluated.
For example, he said, “The way the trail systems are stated is very inconsistent. In some areas the trail system is seen as a plus for solitude. In some areas it’s seen as a minus.”
However, not everyone agrees with those criticisms.
“We trust the Forest Service in their evaluations of these areas,” Mode said. “They have some awfully good people working on that and if they left an area out it was for cause and we trust that.”
Besides, Mode said, when it comes to wildlife, wilderness designation is of minimal benefit anyway. Federal law limits what can happen in a wilderness area. For instance, no mechanical tools are allowed, making it nearly impossible to manage for the young forest habitat that game wildlife like deer, turkey and grouse need to thrive. It’s harder to respond to crises like invasive pests and wildfires.
“We feel the land is more unprotected when you set it aside and can’t do work on it,” Whitmire said.
Kelly and Irwin, meanwhile, maintain that wilderness — aside from being valuable from a recreation standpoint — is vital for a world that’s increasingly defined by human intervention. Wilderness provides a control area of sorts in which people can see what nature does when it’s left to its own devices.
“As a culture we seem to have the desire to control as much of the earth as we can,” Kelly said. “I think that is a dangerous ideology and I think wilderness is a place where people show restraint and humility and respect for nature. I think we need that.”
Just a starting point
The Forest Service itself isn’t saying there aren’t any mistakes or oversights in the documents. That is why they’re releasing them months and months before any kind of formal document is published.
“We’re hoping to know if we missed something and we’re hoping for folks to share their comments with us,” Aldridge said.
Irwin, meanwhile, believes the Forest Service shouldn’t have gone as far as it did with this latest document release before breaking for public comment.
“The public should have had a chance to comment on the evaluation before they put out alternatives and went forward,” Irwin said. “The Forest Service is saying that they’ll take comments on the evaluation, but putting out the alternatives before the public really had a chance to comment on them is premature.”
Kelly agrees with Irwin’s opinion that the evaluation gets too close to the job of the analysis. The document makes calls that shouldn’t have been made until the analysis stage, he said, weighing conflicts with existing recreation use and management techniques.
However, he said he doesn’t have a problem with the Forest Service’s decision to release its draft alternatives at the same time as the evaluation.
“I’m glad the Forest Service released the draft information if it really is draft,” Kelly said. “That’s the whole point, that they can get feedback and get to a better final product. I don’t have a problem with that unless it’s hardening people’s decision.”
That’s exactly what the document is, Melonas said — a draft.
“Really the spirit of what we’re doing here is to provide our early thinking and our best first shot at this, and we want to hear from folks and work on getting that right,” he said. “That’s why we’re doing it months ahead of when the formal draft comes out.”
What is wilderness?
Created under the Wilderness Act of 1964, wilderness areas require Congressional designation and are intended to be places where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Certain restrictions apply to wilderness areas. No mechanical or motorized equipment — the definition covers everything from bicycles to chainsaws to automobiles — is allowed. Structures cannot be built, nor can temporary roads. Aircraft cannot be landed.
Where they stand
Different groups involved in the forest plan revision have different takes on the value of wilderness and its place in the emerging forest plan.
The final plan will cover many other issues besides wilderness, and wilderness is not the sole focus of all the groups quoted in this story.
However, generally speaking The Wilderness Society, MountainTrue and Defenders of Wildlife see the value of additional wilderness designations to preserve the natural processes of nature and protect habitat for non-game wildlife species that need older forest habitat. The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council and the N.C. Wildlife Federation don’t see wilderness designation as valuable to boosting wildlife populations.
The U.S. Forest Service is seeking input on the wilderness evaluations and draft management alternatives it’s released, looking for feedback that will point out any specific oversight or error to be considered before a formal draft is published.
• Read the documents. The wilderness inventory, draft alternatives, an interactive map of the areas and background on what wilderness designation means are available at http://bit.ly/1lgmxaI.
• Consider your feedback. The Forest Service is not looking for opinions on whether people do or don’t like their conclusions. Rather, they’re seeking input as to specific characteristics of specific areas that will help them develop a stronger final document.
Wilderness is far from being the only issue under consideration for the new management plan. Since the beginning of the year, the Forest Service has released draft planning documents covering a range of topics, with links available at http://bit.ly/1TI6AEz.