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Macon commissioners pass resolution opposing additional wilderness

Macon County commissioners voted unanimously last week to endorse a resolution stating that no new wilderness areas in Macon County would be a good thing. With the U.S. Forest Service in the midst of hashing out a new forest management plan, a document that will set the blueprint for the next 20 years, Jim Gray of the Ruffed Grouse Society brought the resolution to the commissioners’ June 8 meeting. He made the case that wilderness areas keep the Forest Service from using the full array of forest management tools available to them — namely, timber harvest. 

“The new plan is strongly sided toward mature forests and scenery,” Gray said. “There is no consideration for wildlife and timber jobs.” 

Many species need the young forest habitat that results when older trees are cut, and the forest has gotten older as the logging industry has flagged. The wilderness designation does prevent some kinds of management, such as logging, and wilderness proponents would like to see additional wilderness acreage added to Macon County forestland. The Forest Service does not yet have a proposed plan to replace its 1987 forest management plan but is working on writing one. 

Logging has decreased by 65 percent in North Carolina’s national forests in the past three decades, and during that time no new wilderness has been added. Of the 500,000 acres in the Nantahala National Forest, wilderness makes up 27,500 — about 5 percent. However, Gray said, other designations prohibit logging so that only about half of the 1 million acres in the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests are open to logging. 

The commissioners’ proposed solution, however, is one that has Brent Martin, Southern Appalachian regional director of The Wilderness Society, pretty upset. 

“Hopefully we can get some agreement in some of these things rather than saying, ‘We oppose wilderness and we think county commissioners ought to oppose wilderness too,’” Martin said. “That’s not a working position. You can’t work with a group that isn’t willing to work with you.”

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Back in 2011, Martin had been working to get Macon County’s support for an opposite resolution, one to add a new wilderness area in Highlands. He’d thought he had everything lined up, but the votes fell through at the last minute. 

“I don’t know how anyone can say protecting wilderness has been a bad thing in this country. It’s been one of the best ideas really in the planet,” Martin said, adding, “I honestly can’t say how anyone can drive down the road, look out the window and say it’s not a good idea.”

But the commissioners don’t see the wilderness question as one that breaks down clearly into pro-environment and anti-environment. 

“I think all of us can agree that we’re environmentalists,” said Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin. “I certainly am, but it’s about balance and I think that’s what the resolution is saying.”

All parties agree that young forest habitat, composing about 1 percent of the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests, is too scarce and should be in the 5 to 20 percent range, but some believe that young forest can be added while still focusing on wilderness.

Commissioner Ronnie Beale feels that promoting hunting and timber harvest is important economically, especially with the future of the federal funding the county receives in lieu of the property taxes it can’t collect on public land remaining uncertain. 

“We certainly don’t want to be restrictive in how we can use the forest, and that might be a way to recoup the money,” Beale said. 

In a letter to the county, however, Franklin resident Bob Scott, who also serves as the town’s mayor, questioned that position. 

“One reason that the Smokies are the most visited national park in the U.S. is the experience of seeing mountains preserved,” Scott wrote. “Wilderness areas will be the big draw to the mountains in the coming years. Hunting will continue and wilderness may well result in more game rather than less.”

Commissioner Ron Haven, however, said that’s not the point. 

“I think that the taxpayers should have the benefits of using our Forest Service land if they want to, to hunt on,” he said. “I think they should use it for hiking trails to hike on. As far as timber and logging, I’ve seen a lot of dead trees up there that should be logged out.”

In the end, wilderness designation is a decision of Congress, but the Forest Service makes the recommendations and those recommendations are influenced by input from citizens and local governments. 

“We don’t have a say-so other than to just express our opinion as any other citizen would have, so that’s what we did is to express our opinion,” Corbin said. 

However, Scott said, a resolution passed by a county board carries a lot more weight than would individual comments made by each commissioner privately. As such, he believes the commissioners should have tabled their vote and taken public input.  

“If you are an elected official and you pass a unanimous resolution, you are speaking for the people,” Scott said. “Now, if each one of them had said ‘my opinion is this or that’ — but if I understand correctly they took an official vote and that is unanimous, that is going to carry a lot of weight with the Forest Service.”

But Corbin pointed out that no public hearing is required to pass a resolution and that the vote did not result in a decision — just an agreement on an opinion. Though the board did no joint research on the decision, he said, he personally spoke with U.S. Congressman Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina, who has a similar point of view, and consulted with several people who are knowledgeable about forestry. 

Graham, Clay and Cherokee counties have all passed similar resolutions. That trend concerns Scott, who stresses the value of wilderness areas. 

“In the overall plan of where Western North Carolina’s going, pockets of wilderness area will be a draw because there are people that are going to enjoy [them] and I think that we have to look at the oncoming generations to give them an opportunity to experience wilderness,” Scott said. “I think we owe it to the generations coming along.”

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