Influential groups lack agreement on Western NC national forests: Carolina Public Press

Thousands of people submitted emails and other public comments about the future of the Pisgah National Forest and the Nantahala National Forest. Seen here is a stretch of the Nantahala River in Cherokee County. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

Lengthy and interesting article by Jack Igelman on the Nantahala and Pisgah forest planning process.  Theirs is particularly interesting because they have two collaborative groups, and because they are in a part of the country with very different history, culture and so on from the West.  They’re fortunate (and so are we)  that they have a reporter with the patience and fortitude to dig into the complexities of the people and the process.
It’s worth reading in its entirety, and I’ve just selected a couple of paragraphs below. There is also a discussion of the “two-tiered” approach.

What were the issues?

According to the comments of the Stakeholders Forum, the key issues are forestry and restoration, special designations, sustainable recreation and wildlife.

While the members agreed on “general values” associated with those issues, they disagreed on the “mechanisms” to achieve a range of conservation, recreational and economic objectives.

“The elephant in the room was the issue of wilderness,” Prater said.

Some members were concerned that the proposed plan may open land for timber harvesting that is also suitable for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Alternatively, other members were concerned about overly restricting the ability to harvest trees for restoration or economic purposes.

According to the comments submitted by the Stakeholders Forum, “some members strongly support wilderness recommendations; some are willing to live with wilderness recommendations; and some are not supportive of wilderness recommendations.”

Prater said the Stakeholders Forum fell short on specific recommendations, “but we identified fertile ground for compromise. It’s a process. We admitted to areas that we couldn’t reach agreement that are too volatile or controversial, but acknowledged they exist.”

Lang Hornthal of EcoForesters, a nonprofit forestry organization based in Asheville and a member of both collaboratives, said the Stakeholders Forum’s final comments also helped explain why some interests disagree.

“The narrative on forest planning is that the public hears just one side of the debate within the lens of what’s important to them, whether that’s the need for more wilderness or more active forest management,” Hornthal said. “The Stakeholders Forum served the purpose of helping the Forest Service better understand where conflict lies.”

Whitmire said one barrier to reaching consensus was that many of the participants had constituents to serve, himself included.

“I didn’t want to let sportsmen down,” he said. “Hunters and fishermen are really in tune with the forest, and sportsmen felt like we had a story to tell.”

What was beneficial, he said, was forming working relationships with other interests and demonstrating to the Forest Service what we “can agree on and don’t agree on.”

For example, members did not agree with how to approach old growth in the plan and that “there is no singular definition for ‘old growth’ that is broadly agreed upon across stakeholders,” and there was disagreement regarding the amount of inventoried old growth in the forests.

While the Stakeholders Forum was not as specific as the Partnership’s recommendations, members said the dialogue that occurred over several years was meaningful, especially for sportsmen, whose central concern was that game populations are suffering due to aging forests.


For example, he said, the Forest Service should focus future projects in noncontroversial areas of the forests. Specifically, it should tread carefully in places where there is old-growth forest or areas that are recognized in the state Natural Heritage Program for their extraordinary biodiversity.

A case in point is the controversial Buck Project decision to harvest trees and restore forest in Clay County in Nantahala National Forest.

The decision, made in June, infuriated environmentalists, who said the project will harvest trees in sensitive areas of the forest that contain old growth and unique plant and animal species.

“In our viewpoint, it’s not that complicated,” he said. “If there is uncertainty around areas with old growth or unique species, then we need to tread lightly and err on the side of doing less.”

I wonder whether it would make sense to delineate the noncontroversial areas up front as part of the forest plan? Or whether that is part of the plan (perhaps suitable acres are also noncontroversail?)

3 thoughts on “Influential groups lack agreement on Western NC national forests: Carolina Public Press”

  1. I think timber suitability ought to be front and center as an important public choice (and a way of identifying “controversial” areas. Instead, it is treated as a mostly technical decision and buried in an appendix somewhere. In fact, it’s buried in the table on page B-2 in this appendix for the Nantahala-Pisgah:

    Yes, there are technical factors that determine what lands “may” be suitable for timber production. But the last step is this:
    “E. Lands not suited for timber production because timber production is not compatible with the desired conditions and objectives established by the plan”

    There are two parts to this. The desired conditions and objectives for an area must be determined, and the compatibility of growing a “crop” of trees under these circumstances must be determined. You’ll never find any documentation in a planning record of the rationale for “compatibility” (which I believe makes it arbitrary). I think there might be more satisfaction with the outcome if these two parts were addressed together instead of sequentially, and if the public is involved in both (and the process is well-documented).

    • The other problem I am thinking is that perhaps it’s not clear (since we are some of the most planning-arcane people around) if (1) it’s an exercise required by NFMA (tedious, outdated and to be minimized, possibly irrelevant)
      or (2) could be turned into something useful.

      I doubt that, a bit, as trees can be cut outside suitable lands for other (restoration, fuel treatment) purposes. What might be useful is to map specific areas of broad general agreement about where trees could be cut. This would help planning perhaps in a way related to the original thinking of NFMA. And if groups are trading Wilderness acres for tree-cutting acres, then it would make a mark of intent. Not that that would stop people from litigating, but it might help with the problem that when those kinds of agreements are made, the “protecting” end goes into place, and the “managing end” goes into litigation when a project is proposed. I’m not saying that people aren’t acting in good faith- there are a variety of groups with different interests out there. That’s not to say that would happen with the NP, but I’ve seen it happen elsewhere.

      • I’ve always been for making things you have to do useful, but I’m afraid that most of forest planning is regarded by most FS staff as “tedious, outdated and to be minimized, possibly irrelevant.”

        What’s not clear to me any more is how important it is to distinguish between harvest from suitable acres and other areas. I think the “regulated crop of trees” requirement on suitable acres is important. It would allow you to make timber volume part of the purpose and need for a vegetation management project, which would affect how alternatives are structured. I assume there is a difference in the program-budget process, but maybe not. Suitable and unsuitable lands are also supposed to be treated differently in the long-term timber calculations (sustained yield capacity), but the FS is ignoring that requirement right now.


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