Final forest management plan draws mixed reactions from stakeholder groups
The Pisgah and Nantahala national forests are now operating under a new management plan, ending an arduous, 11-year process to revise an existing plan implemented in 1987.
The new plan was one of the first developed under a 2012 planning rule that emphasized public participation throughout the process.
“We’re excited to share the final plan, and really that provides the framework for us working together for the next generation to address the complex challenges we’re going to be facing,” said Forest Supervisor James Melonas. “And really it builds on an incredible conservation legacy of the past century, when not more than 100 years ago these lands were cut over and not national forests. And so it’s amazing to see where we come from and exciting to see where we’re going into the future.”
Some groups involved with the plan’s creation also expressed optimism for the forest’s future and relief that the tedious and at times contentious planning process is over. They’re happy that the final version reflects comments and concerns they voiced along the way.
But that sentiment is far from universal.
“The old plan forced us into sort of a zero-sum game, and being close enough to that to know that that was not necessary, I just assumed that rational minds in the Forest Service would see that too, and that they would help us get out of that gridlock pattern,” said Sam Evans, leader of the National Forests and Parks Program for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “A big disappointment for me here at the end of the process is that it is more of the same. It’s going to drive a wedge between stakeholders that had found consensus.”
SELC and four other environmental organizations — MountainTrue, The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife — published a joint press release the same morning the final plan went live, Feb. 17, decrying the plan as a failure that “turned a tin ear to legitimate input” and “outright dismisses the need to protect thousands of acres of high-priority areas for rare species.”
The final plan is out, Evans said, but the fight is not over. The groups are considering their options.
“We can sue over the plan,” Evans said. “We can oppose projects as they come up under the new plan. I would say the only thing that’s not an option for us is letting this plan roll out and be implemented in a way that continues to degrade those same resources — unroaded areas, healthy, intact forests like the state Natural Heritage Areas and existing old growth.”
- As the sun hits the horizon, it shoots color through the sky from a viewpoint on the Pisgah Ranger District. USFS photo
Concerns from the Partnership
All five organizations are active members or affiliate members of the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership, a group of more than 20 diverse organizations with sometimes competing priorities for the forest plan that spent years hammering out a viable compromise. When the revised plan came out in January 2021, many in the group were upset to see key recommendations excluded from the document.
Prominent among these concerns was the tier system the plan used to identify two levels of goals — benchmarks the Forest Service could reach using its own resources and benchmarks that would require help from partners. The Partnership wanted to see various tier objectives tied together so that, for instance, the Forest Service couldn’t move on to Tier 2 timber harvest goals without first meeting Tier 1 goals in other areas, such as invasive species management and watershed protection. Additionally, the Partnership said, the plan should require ecological restoration treatments to be paired with any commercial timber harvest occurring on the forest landscape.
The group was also concerned that 54,000 acres of state Natural Heritage Natural Areas were placed in management areas open to commercial logging and road building, and that the plan didn’t allow for protection of old growth patches found during timber projects. The group wanted to see a “cap and trade” approach to the 265,000-acre Old Growth Network identified in the plan, so that lower-quality patches in the network could be swapped out for higher-quality patches encountered during projects.
The Partnership wasn’t the only group to object to the plan. The Forest Service recognized 891 parties as meeting the criteria for involvement in the objections process, and three days of virtual meetings in August aimed to hear all the objections raised and discuss suggested remedies to them. In January, the U.S. Forest Service finished reviewing those objections, and on Feb. 17 the agency released the final plan, incorporating changes from the objection process.
According to Evans, “the Forest Service didn’t do anything meaningful at all in response to those objections.”
However, there were some changes.
An additional 800 acres was added to the Forest Scenic Area at Big Ivy/Craggy Mountain and Shope Creek — objectors had asked for an additional 4,000 acres — and a newly eligible Wild and Scenic River segment with a recreation classification was added for the North Fork French Broad River. Objectors had asked that designation be recommended for four rivers, but the final plan does recommend nine new Wild and Scenic Rivers in addition to the 10 currently recommended and three designated.
The final plan also clarified how the plan protects species of conservation concern and recovery of federally listed species. It contained various changes in response to concerns from multiple outdoor recreation groups, including clarifying management aspects for user-created trails, updating guidance on managing climbing routes through unique habitats, and added management approaches related to visitor management at equestrian campgrounds. Additionally, the document updated process documentation on ecological modeling, species analyses and Wild and Scenic Rivers evaluations.
But for the coalition of organizations represented by SELC, those revisions are nowhere near enough to address what they say are critical failures in the plan. Under the plan, 458,000 acres — about 45% of the forest — are deemed suitable for logging, and the groups say that 100,000 of those acres should be protected as old growth forests, rare species habitat and roadless backcountry. The most aggressive logging schedule under the plan allows 3,200 acres to be harvested each year, or 64,000 acres over the estimated 20-year life of the plan.
Evans said the groups he represents never wanted to see increased logging on the forest but agreed to support it as a means of compromise — so long as certain parameters were met, as agreed to by the Partnership.
“We thought, sort of naively in hindsight, that the Forest Service would see the value in that and would build that into the final version,” said Evans. “Instead, what the Forest Service did was pull out all of the good stuff. So basically, they just stripped out of the plan all of the focus on restoration and left the timber production. And when they did that, they also didn’t include any sideboards around things like old growth, state natural heritage areas and unroaded backcountry areas.”
“The Forest Service chose to blatantly ignore the voice of the people and the best available science in determining the future of our public lands,” added Hugh Irwin, senior conservation specialist for The Wilderness Society. “This forest plan will put key conservation areas and values at risk.”
However, condemnation of the final plan is not universal among members of the Partnership. Megan Sutton of The Nature Conservancy, who represented the Partnership during last year’s objection meetings, said she is not ready to make public comments about the plan, but representatives from both EcoForesters and the Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society — both of which are active Partnership members — expressed support for the final plan and optimism about the forest’s future.
Nick Biemiller, forest conservation director for the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society, said that the final plan doesn’t include everything he’d like it to or everything the Partnership asked for, but that he understands why.
“While I think there was a lot of strong collaboration through certain stakeholder collaboratives, like the Stakeholders Forum and like the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership, those are not the only members of the public that the Forest Service was hearing from,” Biemiller said. “They were also considering the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; they were also considering local counties across Western North Carolina, local residents not just in urban areas like Asheville but also people that live out in the country and rural communities. And when taken as a whole, that’s a pretty diverse series of interests.”
Lang Hornthal, co-executive director of the nonprofit forestry organization EcoForesters, said that he never expected the Partnership’s recommendations to be copied and pasted into the plan.
“I personally never had an expectation that they wanted us to write the plan, and in fact early on they shared with both collaborative groups, the Partnership and the Stakeholders Forum, that that was not the reason for having people engaged with the Forest Service,” Hornthal said. “That was their job. That’s what they were hired to do and what they are required to do.”
Still, he said, the final document shows that the Forest Service was listening to what the Partnership had to say and may well be the most collaborative forest plan that’s ever been written.
- Protestors raise homemade signs during a Protect Pisgah Party + Rally for the Forest at the U.S. Forest Service headquarters in Asheville. Holly Kays photo
Debating old growth
Lack of protection for old growth forest is a big part of the problem that SELC, MountainTrue, The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife have with the final plan. The issue has proved contentious throughout the entire planning process.
The new plan includes 49,000 acres of newly recommended wilderness in addition to the 66,000 acres of designated wilderness already found on the forest, and it designates 265,000 acres — more than one-quarter of the forest — as part of an Old Growth Network where timber harvest can’t take place and trees will be allowed to grow to the end of their natural life.
However, during the objections process last year, the Partnership criticized the Old Growth Network as containing very little actual old growth. The plan should establish a “cap and trade” system, the Partnership said, under which any high-quality old growth discovered during project planning could be added to the network in exchange for acreage with lesser old growth characteristics.
The Forest Service did not implement this suggestion. In its objection response document, the Forest Service wrote that it made this decision due to disagreement about the correct size of the Old Growth Network and disagreement over the criteria used to add or remove patches. The large acreage given to the Old Growth Network is intended to offset this issue.
According to Evans, only 30,000 acres of the 265,000 acres is at the minimum age level to qualify as old growth, and the remainder is middle-aged forest of 60-100 years. Meanwhile, known old growth stands were not included in the network. The Forest Service does not have a figure for the number of acres in the network that currently qualify as old growth.
“We’re trading young forest that maybe will become older one day for existing old growth now,” Evans said, “and that isn’t a good trade for the species that live in old growth forests and don’t move around.”
Evans is especially concerned about creatures like salamanders and lichen, which often have specific habitat requirements and aren’t able to flee when their surroundings suddenly change. He fears that the plan will result in valuable old growth forest that didn’t make it into the designated network being cut down without consideration — the forest plan does not require project-level surveys for old growth patches.
Hornthal thinks those fears are overwrought. Most of the trees in the 1.04-million-acre forest are 80-100 years old, springing up in the 1920s and 1930s as large-scale logging slowed down.
“The same characteristics that are important from an old growth network and system standpoint are also happening all over the forest as 1.1 million acres is getting older, unless disturbance happens, either manmade or through nature,” he said.
Melonas said that the Forest Service’s “guiding light” as it develops projects will be the framework developed under the new plan that lays out desired conditions for various areas of the forest. Those desired conditions sometimes center on creating younger forest and sometimes on developing older forest.
“Because of the complexity of the forest, there’s always going to be places that we might find a particular stand that is in that older forest type, and we can say, ‘You know what, that’s an area that’s special, and that we want to favor for those types, and that’s part of a larger project that’s holistic in a given area,’” he said.
Hornthal doesn’t see anything sinister in the Forest Service’s decision to pass on the cap-and-trade idea or to leave decisions about old growth discovered during timber projects up to the district ranger.
“I didn’t hear the Forest Service say that they were going to go in and cut down old growth forests because they didn’t care about it,” Hornthal said. “What I did hear them say is we have a mandate to consider all age classes and the important values that they bring to the forest system. And we’re going to try to manage for all those values.”
It’s a matter of flexibility, he said, and wanting to keep all tools on the table to restore and improve forest health in the face of uncertain challenges.
Evans scoffs at that perspective, pointing to the controversial Southside Timber Project in southern Macon and Jackson counties as evidence.
“To those who said, ‘Don’t worry, the Forest Service will do good stuff under this plan even if they’re giving themselves the permission to do bad stuff,’ I say that’s your answer,” he said.
- Nonprofits are pushing for increased protection of old-growth forest. Steven McBride photo
Opposing views on climate change
In press releases issued the same day, the Forest Service and the five environmental groups drew opposing conclusions about the plan’s implications for climate change.
The Forest Service said that the plan “focuses on forest resilience in the face of climate change,” while the environmental groups contended that it “ignores” the role of forests in fighting climate change.
“If you were to calculate which of those ecozones have the most potential for carbon storage, it’s the places with the big trees,” Evans said. “It’s the cove forest, it’s the mesic oak forest. They tend to store the most carbon. And if you were doing a restoration forest plan, those are the areas that you would leave alone.”
That’s not what the plan does, and that’s a huge loss in the fight against climate change, Evans said.
Hornthal sees it differently, laying out two schools of thought for the role of forests in combating climate change. The first view says that sequestering carbon is the most important goal, and that forests should be managed to sequester as much carbon as possible by limiting tree cutting. The second view sees forests as an important resource that must be kept as healthy as possible to withstand whatever challenges the future brings.
“If you’re managing solely for carbon sequestration and that’s it, and then a wildfire happens and burns down everything that you were growing, what have you done?” he said. “But if you’re managing a forest for resilience and making it as strong a system as possible, you are probably in a better position to be prepared.”
He believes that’s what the plan does.
When asked which part of the plan he was happiest about, Melonas said he was especially proud of the Forest Service’s collaboration with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The tribe had “close consultation” with the Forest Service throughout the planning process, said EBCI Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources Joey Owle.
“When you go through the plan and look at the various management objectives and priority areas, there are aspects of it that reflect what the tribe’s priorities are, and so we’re pleased to see that our considerations and priorities are in the plan,” Owle said.
The plan includes an objective to ensure sustainable harvest of ramps and a diverse selection of medicinal plants, and another to enhance, restore and augment native ginseng populations while also managing permitted ginseng collection at sustainable levels. Both objectives reflect input from the tribe. The plan also specifies that the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, should be managed in consultation with tribes and with the National Park Service.
At the same time that the Forest Service was finalizing the plan, the EBCI was finalizing an agreement with the Forest Service under the authority of the Tribal Forest Protection Act that will allow the tribe and the Forest Service to partner on forest management and stewardship projects that include tribal land.
Owle said he was impressed with how the forest management plan served as a framework for addressing complex challenges and drew language from it when crafting the Tribal Forest Protection Act agreement.
“What we’ve been able to accomplish with the Forest Service staff here in North Carolina has been a testament to the relationship-building that’s been long-standing and of course, new relationships that we can build, that it resulted in meaningful and thoughtful consultation,” Owle said.
The road forward
Now the meetings are over, the public comment periods ended, and the new plan is out. The process is over — for now.
When the last plan was completed in 1987, it didn’t take long for environmental groups to sue over alleged weaknesses in the document, ultimately winning in court and spurring significant revisions, which took effect in 1994. That could happen again.
Evans said the five environmental groups don’t have immediate plans to sue, but that legal action is not off the table. They believe the plan is deeply flawed and can’t be allowed to go into effect unchallenged — whether that challenge happens in the courtroom or during the planning process of each subsequent project.
“I’m hopeful that the Forest Service will take its lumps and learn something from this objection process and at least try to stay within the zone of consent and stay within the collaborative sphere as it’s rolling out projects,” Evans said. “I don’t anticipate that. I don’t expect it. But that’s what my hope is. But, if they don’t, it is not an option for us to just sit back and let them do that. We’ve put much too much into this process to quit now.”
As the planning process began more than a decade ago, Forest Service staff believed that a longer, more collaborative process would result in a final plan that the region’s diverse stakeholders could get behind. That consensus would, they hoped, allow individual projects to move through more quickly, with fewer objections and lawsuits.
The final plan does enjoy support from a range of groups — but certainly not from all of them. The process has not once and for all settled the long-standing tensions between myriad competing interests. But perhaps that was never possible.
“In an ideal world, we’d be in a situation where everybody felt excited about the plan and kind of ready to streamline the process of implementing it,” Biemiller said. “I don’t think we’re there with some organizations and interests. I think that’s too bad. I also do kind of wonder if some of that was unavoidable anyway.”
Read the plan
The final forest management plan for the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest, along with supporting materials, is available at bit.ly/PNNFplan.