A grand opportunity for the USFS and partners
The USFS recently released the final version of the forest management plan for the Pisgah and Nantahala National forests After almost 10 years of adapting to the new 2012 Planning Rule, which mandated public participation and stakeholder collaboration, the fruits of their labor are finally released. And everyone is grumbling. Well, not everyone, but most people are saying the USFS didn’t do enough to protect the special places in the forest. My take is a little different in that everyone is grumbling a little, which usually spells compromise.
The aforementioned 2012 Planning Rule mandated that any management involve the public and use the best scientific information available to maintain the ecological integrity of the forest for wildlife while allowing five million people a year to recreate. It also allows for timber to be harvested in support of local communities and the counties that have little to no tax base due to forestland. In a nutshell, the Forest Service couldn’t hole themselves up in a cave and write the plan. Instead, they needed to show maximum transparency and listen to the public in a way that would inform their management decisions. Now, this doesn’t mean a popularity contest and whoever screams the loudest or writes the most letters get the final say. It does mean the FS has to listen to the people and communities that benefit from the national forest and enjoy its use as it was intended.
For those of you that don’t know how national forests are mandated to be managed, I direct you to the Multiple Use/Sustainable Yield Act. You can guess what it means by its name. Any management must be sustainable, whether recreation (think Max Patch) or timber harvesting. And the forest must be managed in a way that gives access and protection to those areas of the forest that are coveted by diverse groups for different reasons. The trouble is too often these areas overlap and there is conflict.
The biggest rub of the current final plan is that it gives too much discretion to district foresters and project planning teams. Past conflict — and boy has there been some — has put a bad taste in the mouth of conservation focused groups. They feel slighted by having past appeals for the protection of biodiversity and old forests ignored and are slow to trust this government agency to change. And I can understand why. If you think that a majority of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forest should be cut off from certain modern forest management prescriptions for the next 20 to 30 years, then you have a right to be upset. Now, that doesn’t mean that the areas will definitely be managed in a way that could harm special places, but that they could. And at the end of the day, the Forest Service reserves the right as the responsible agency for this incredible resource to manage as they deem needed in the future.
From a forester’s perspective, we don’t know what is going to happen in the forest in five years, much less 15 to 20 years. Having a diverse toolbox is important when you discover changes to the forest due to the hand of man. I am not defending past timber harvesting as there was a time that we honestly believed that our forests (and oceans) could never be depleted. We now see how generations of taking the best and leaving the rest has severely degraded our forests, introduced invasive species, and allowed for the faster growing trees to outcompete our mast producing trees (oaks and hickory) causing wildlife to suffer. And don’t be too hard on the forest products sector. They have been community leaders for generations and are supportive of reinvesting in our forests through restoration and certified sustainable forestry. Our generation now has the hand that we were dealt and now we have to play it.
If we knew when the next wildfire, hurricane, or invasive insect invasion was coming and where it would be, then we would plan for it. Unfortunately, the only thing that we know with certainty is that one, if not all, of those disasters will occur, on multiple occasions over the lifetime of this plan. In preparation, I would like to have one of those big toolboxes you see in the back of a contractor’s truck, rather than one that looks like my tackle box. The hand of man is firmly imprinted on nature and we owe it to this special place to be active stewards in its conservation and restoration.
The Forest Service has an excellent opportunity to complete the use of the 2012 Planning Rule with collaborative project planning and implementation. They have said repeatedly that they cannot effectively manage the Pisgah and Nantahala with their current budgets and staffing levels. No one is holding their breath for increased government spending, so they must rely on outside partners to get the work done. Luckily, those partners are ready to help. But they want to be heard and to see where the USFS can make project level decisions collaboratively to achieve more and reduce conflict. I for one believe they will and this planning process will be an example for future planning processes. To learn more about how that is being accomplished, go to npforestpartnership.org to see the different organizations, recreation groups, and businesses that are committed to the process and sustainable forestry.
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Speaking of foresight and toolboxes... The goal of resiliency is necessary in concept as it pertains to being able to withstand the forces of nature, i.e hurricanes, wildfire, etc... Having a toolbox to help with the fixing of the forest is also a good and necessary thing. But as you say, 'The hand of man is firmly imprinted on nature and we owe it to this special place to be active stewards in its conservation and restoration.' It is my opinion that the USFS thinks its toolbox is perfect (BMPs) and all powerful (best science) and thus it creates resiliency with every action. I only need to walk a few miles of perfectly (100% BMP compliance) constructed logging roads to see how easily the forces of nature overwhelm the work of man's hand, sending it down the mountain.