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‘A Herculean feat’: Forest Service aims to satisfy objections in last round of plan revisions

‘A Herculean feat’: Forest Service aims to satisfy objections in last round of plan revisions

A decade of meetings, hearings, comments, debate and disagreement over the future of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests culminated in a three-day meeting marathon last week that aimed to resolve hundreds of objections over the plan’s handling of everything from old growth to drinking water.

“I feel the weight on my shoulders from all the information gained this week,” Deputy Regional Forester Rick Lint said as he closed out the meetings Aug. 4. 

Lint is the reviewing officer for the Pisgah-Nantahala Forest Management Plan , meaning that it will be his job to review all 891 written objections , consider feedback from last week’s meetings, and issue a decision on what, if any, changes must be made before the plan’s implementation. It’s bound to be a tough job, he said. 

“It seemed like everything we talked about was ‘more’ in some form or fashion,” he said. “More old growth, more protection, more ephemeral protection, more of everything. I don’t know if we can deliver more of everything unless we made more Pisgah and Nantahala, increased the size of it. That’s some of the weight that I feel.”

Covering a combined 1.04 million acres, the Pisgah-Nantahala encompasses some of the highest peaks and most pristine lands east of the Mississippi, and it’s one of the country’s most visited national forest units. The process to replace the current forest plan, which was finalized in 1987 with significant amendments in 1994, has been ongoing since 2012, eliciting strong feelings, active involvement and robust debate from myriad groups representing an array of interests. 

In January, the Forest Service published its final plan , kicking off a formal objection process that culminated with 24 hours’ worth of virtual meetings Aug 2-4. Held via Microsoft Teams, the meetings were open for public viewing, while the dialogue unfolded between Forest Service representatives and the plan’s official objectors and interested parties. During most sessions, 60-70 people were logged in. 

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Facilitated by consultant Nancy Walters, the meetings followed a careful format aimed at avoiding a circular rehash of old arguments while ensuring Lint and Forest Supervisor James Melonas understood which aspects of the plan participants objected to and the specific remedies they proposed. 

Both during the meetings and in follow-up interviews, participants with varying perspectives expressed appreciation for the thoughtful conversations that unfolded last week and optimism about the final recommendations. 

“I was really encouraged by the quality of the dialogue, the attentive listening and thoughtful responses from the Forest Service,” said Will Harlan, who represented the I Heart Pisgah Coalition. “They asked some really great, insightful questions. I’m encouraged. I’m cautiously hopeful that this will lead to some substantial changes to the plan.”

Nick Biemiller, who as the lead objector for the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society stands opposite Harlan on many forest management issues, also said the meetings went “really well.”

“I was impressed with everyone’s professionalism, with the Forest Service’s professionalism, and their ability to hear a lot of really hard feedback and sometimes pretty accusatory statements about the work they’ve produced,” Biemiller said. 

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Protestors raise homemade signs during the Aug. 1 Protect Pisgah Party + Rally for the Forest at the U.S. Forest Service headquarters in Asheville. Holly Kays photo

Logging and road-building 

Spread over three days, the meeting agenda  included dedicated sessions for issues ranging from recreation to climate change to land management allocations. However, each session bumped up against a tension that ran through the entire schedule — how can the plan better balance timber harvest and young forest creation with preserving old growth and protecting sensitive habitats? 

While logging has its critics, it also has its uses. The Pisgah-Nantahala is short on young forest, with most of the land covered by trees that started growing when large-scale logging halted in the 1920s and 1930s — they’re now 80-100 years old. In addition to providing the raw materials for an array of consumer goods, timber harvest allows sunlight to reach the earth, prompting an explosion of growth in recently logged areas that provides vital habitat for an array of species — some of which are in decline as Western North Carolina’s forests continue to age. 

But the forest is also lacking in old growth forest, an age class that supports an entirely different suite of species and ecological value. 

Nobody who participated in the meetings argued that timber harvest should not occur or that old growth is not important. However, participants felt like the plan shortchanged one or both of those goals in various ways — or that the actions it authorized would incur a wave of collateral damage. 

For instance, road construction. 

“There just is no way the (logging) activity levels can increase the way the plan describes without expanding the road system far more than what is set forth in the EIS  (Environmental Impact Statement), and thus increasing the already dire maintenance backlog,” said Susannah Knox, joining the meeting on behalf of the Southern Environmental Law Center. 

Knox showed a map depicting extensive Forest Service lands that are currently inaccessible via road but would be eligible for logging under the plan, saying that “there is simply no way” the land could be reached without building many more road miles than anticipated in the plan. 

Road building is a frequent target of criticism associated with logging projects. Poorly built or poorly maintained roads are a major source of sedimentation in streamwater, which in turn causes issues for the aquatic species that require clear, dirt-free water. Budgetary issues keep the Forest Service from adequately maintaining the roads it already has — how, objectors asked, could it ensure these new roads wouldn’t exacerbate existing issues? 

Biemiller suggested that the Forest Service explore stewardship agreements with logging companies in which money from the timber sale would be used to pay for road maintenance. Knox asked that the agency commit to decreasing the maintenance backlog before expanding the road system, while Sutton suggested that the Forest Service consider adding an objective stating that the road maintenance backlog be reduced by incremental amounts, or that the agency create a road bank in which existing roads are maintained or decommissioned as new ones are added. 

“The Partnership is such a broad and diverse group of organizations that in order for us to reach agreement on anything, we really had to weave together everything,” Sutton said during the discussion. 

In its recommendations, the Partnership created a tied tier system, in which certain elements of the plan could move forward to larger goals as long as criteria in other areas were met first. The Forest Service plan uses the tier system but does not make advancing to Tier 2 in one area dependent on achieving Tier 1 in other areas — something that elicited criticism from many stakeholders. 

The roads issue was “really critical” to the interdependent agreements the Partnership reached, Sutton said. 

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Facilitator Nancy Walters (from left), Deputy Regional Forester Rick Lint and Forest Supervisor James Melonas speak with objectors during an Aug. 4 session. SMN photo

Prioritizing old growth 

The old growth issue also received a lot of airtime. 

The final plan  designated 265,000 acres, a quarter of the forest, as an Old Growth Network that aims to produce a spine of very old trees representing the variety of ecosystems and elevations present on the forest. While that’s the largest acreage of any of the proposed alternatives, objectors pointed out that much of the acreage in the network — 42%, according to the Chattooga Conservancy’s Nicole Hayler — does not currently contain old growth trees. Meanwhile, MountainTrue’s Josh Kelly spoke of outstanding old growth stands he’s visited that are not protected within the network. 

“In spite of the diverse opinions that we have heard within the Partnership, there has been a strong consensus generally around protecting existing old growth as a way to smooth project implementation,” Sutton said. 

Everyone in the Partnership agrees that more young forest — and therefore timber harvest — is needed on the Pisgah-Nantahala, but when the Forest Service issues logging proposals that include lands some organizations believe should be protected, the ensuing dispute can sometimes end up in court and delay a needed project for years. 

Sutton said that the Partnership’s objections aimed to smooth out such disagreements ahead of time to prevent controversy from hamstringing project execution over the two decades or so the new plan will remain in effect. 

“Our primary concern is that the plan does not go far enough toward resolving conflict and leaves too much decision base to the project and implementation, and we feel that will create inefficiencies,” she said in an interview. 

Her suggestions during the objection meeting included settling for a smaller old growth network but incorporating a “cap and trade” approach, with a clear process in the plan for identifying old growth during project planning. When the Forest Service identifies additional old growth patches, they could be “traded” to the network, replacing stands with lackluster old growth characteristics. 

The “cap and trade” plan earned unanimous support from those who participated in the conversation, but the Forest Service declined to consider such an approach in detail when developing the final plan. In the “Response to Comments” document  on the forest planning page , the Forest Service wrote that it did not consider a cap-and-trade process because there is “strong disagreement” as to the starting point acreage and criteria for adding and removing patches, and because such an approach “is untested, would require additional level (sic) of project surveys for old growth characteristics, and would likely be regularly challenged.”

Old growth forest also loomed large in a lengthy discussion about the plan’s implications for climate change. 

“Mature and old growth forests are our best defense against catastrophic wildfire and flooding. The 1 million acres of the Pisgah-Nantahala provide some important, critical resilience benefits,” said Harlan. “The carbon  storage component cannot be overstated. You are the largest carbon stock manager in the state of North Carolina.”

Old growth trees store much more carbon than young trees do, said Harlan. While that’s true, Biemiller pointed out that carbon storage and carbon sequestration are two different things — and rapidly growing young forest wins on the sequestration front. 

“Anytime we think about forest carbon on the forest level, we need to think about the full life cycle, the way in which that carbon is stored and utilized in wood products and the way it is used as a substitution for more carbon-intensive materials,” Biemiller said. 

For example, if a mature oak is cut down and made into a table, the carbon in the oak remains stored until that table either burns or rots. Meanwhile, a seedling planted in its place will begin to vigorously pull additional carbon from the air and turn it into new wood. 

“I would tend to agree with Mr. Biemiller that there is a bit of tension between the rate of carbon sequestration, which is very high in young forests, and the maximum storage potential of forests,” Kelly said. 

In some forest types, he said, achieving maximum carbon storage is dangerous, because it increases the risk of wildfire — and wildfires output massive amounts of carbon. 

“There are abundant opportunities to address species composition issues, structural issues that make our forests less resilient, while also continuing to increase the carbon sequestration,” Kelly said. 

Forest cover in the Southern Appalachians has increased dramatically in the lifetimes of everyone on the call, he said, making for one of the world’s greatest forest restoration success stories. 

“We should continue to increase the carbon sequestration, and I believe the National Forests in North Carolina will continue so long as we are very intentional about where we pursue our restoration and timber harvest opportunities,” he said. 

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Representing the Indigenous Environmental Network, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians citizen Mary Crowe addresses the crowd Aug. 1. Holly Kays photo

Debating modeling 

The rules governing plan revision don’t give any explicit directions or limitations as to the types of changes that Lint, the objection reviewing officer, may issue. While objectors criticized individual plan components over the course of the three-day meeting, they also argued for deeper-level revisions that, if pursued, could delay plan implementation for years. 

“The models are the foundation for the EIS, so redoing the models means redoing the EIS. I want to be really clear about that. That’s not going to be an easy task,” said Sam Evans, speaking on behalf of SELC. “If the Forest Service isn’t prepared to adopt plan components to address the issues today, though, it’s an essential and just unavoidable next step.”

Many of the plan’s conclusions rest on the outputs of two complex models. The Natural Range of Variation model aims to show what range of conditions is natural on the forest landscape, while the Spectrum model estimates which lands are available for various future uses. The consensus around the virtual table was that both models are flawed — though opinions differed as to what those flaws were and which direction they skewed the conclusions. 

The ensuing discussion led Lint to question whether revising the model would actually end the disagreement. 

“When we don’t like the outcome, we don’t like the model,” he said. “So if we were to agree on a model, would we actually agree on a model?”

Revising the models and the EIS they inform could mean another decade of work, not to mention “probably a lot of retirements” from people who spent years working on the current plan, Lint said. 

“That could be 5-10 more years of planning, and even then if there’s disagreement on the results, the model is easy fodder for disagreement, for criticism,” he said. 

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A young rallygoer poses for a photo Aug. 1 in Asheville. Holly Kays photo

‘You will meet us in the forest’

Like the model, the plan — whatever its final form may be — will also be a target for criticism. 

While Sutton, Biemiller and Harlan all said they were pleased with how the objection meetings went, in follow-up interviews none of the three committed to accepting the outcome of the review process without first knowing the result. A wave of litigation followed completion of the current plan in 1987, kicking off a court process that resulted in the 1994 revisions. 

“I’m not sure that the Partnership would have an answer on that question,” Sutton said when asked whether stakeholders should accept the plan or continue to push for provisions not included in the final document. “I don’t know that there’s a right or wrong answer on staying engaged.”

“I think that perfect storm of how to meet all those needs in the objection and prevent overhaul and litigation, it is a challenging needle to thread,” Biemiller said. “So I hope that they’re able to thread that needle and we’re able to come away from this in the fall with a plan that everyone can live with. But I think that’s a bit of a Herculean feat, for sure.”

If the Forest Service doesn’t make changes to the plan — including protections for old growth and the Craggy National Scenic Area — “there will be significant public pushback, and they are inviting decades of increased conflict,” said Harlan. 

The hundreds of people who crowded the parking lot outside the Forest Service headquarters Aug. 1, in a rally  Harlan helped organize, sent the same message. 

“If you continue to go forward with this plan, you will meet us in the forest,” Marissa Percoco, executive director of The Firefly Gathering, said during the rally’s speaking program. 

The crowd of more than 300 cheered and whistled at her words, some waving signs alluding to the record for the longest tree sit, set in 1999 when California activist Julia Butterfly Hill spent 738 days in a 600-year-old coast redwood tree. 

“It’s going to cost you a lot more to fight us out here than to save the old growth. I hope you know that, James,” said Percoco, directing her comments to Forest Supervisor James Melonas. Later in the rally, attendees were invited to sign up for an email list for those interested in participating in any necessary “direct action.”

In a follow-up interview, Melonas maintained that “there are no easy answers” to the complex issues contained in the forest plan but that he hopes to end up with a framework that will guide the forest effectively through the next generation of management. 

“I believe that the Forest Service is inherently a force for good,” he said as the objection meetings concluded. “We always strive to learn to do better, to listen, to take into account different viewpoints. I know we don’t always agree, and we can disagree pretty strongly on some things, but it always comes from a point of deep dedication to the responsibility we have to try to steward these public lands.” 


What’s next? 

With the objection meetings now concluded, Deputy Regional Forester Rick Lint will work with his staff to review written objections and meeting discussions. That feedback will inform his written response to the objections, which may include instructions for changes to the final plan. 

Lint will send his response to Forest Supervisor James Melonas, who must incorporate the instructions into the planning documents. Then he will be able to sign and implement the final plan. 

While there is no specific timeline to complete this process, the U.S. Forest Service expects the review to extend to late fall, with a final plan out by late 2022 or early 2023. Should the review conclude that extensive changes are necessary, an additional public comment period is possible. 

Videos and transcripts of the Aug. 2-4 objection meetings will be posted at once they are processed and available, likely within two weeks.

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