Forest Plan in Action: Equestrians, mountain bikers and other recreational users say they are ready for a new trail plan
This is the second in a series, “Forest Plan in Action.”
The U.S. Forest Service recently released the final version of the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan. The strategic plan will manage more than a million acres of national forest in Western North Carolina.
Now the plan is in action. One of the first big projects expected could mean changes for the trail system.
Recreation stakeholders and the Forest Service say these changes are necessary for more sustainable access.
When the Forest Service released their plans for the Nantahala Pisgah area after a decade of work, Deirdre Perot didn’t see the end of a long road
“It is not the finish line. This is the start of the new phase because the partnership has vowed to go into implementation, especially the recreation group,” said Perot, state public lands representative for Back Country Horsemen of NC.
The national group focuses on equestrian access to public lands and more. Perot’s been involved with the forest plan since 2012 through a variety of groups including the Nantahala Pisgah Forest Partnership.
Perot is one of many recreation stakeholders such as mountain bikers and kayakers who want to access the forest.
“The forest is very intricate. Everything that the Forest Service does affects something else,” Perot said.
When the Forest Service released the final draft plan in January 2022, it limited equestrians and mountain bikers to designated trails. The draft plan also said that within five years, the Forest Service would begin collaborative trail planning to address equestrian and bicycle trail needs in the Bald Mountains, Black Mountains, Eastern Escarpment, and Highland Domes Geographic Areas.
Stakeholders, including Perot, objected to any limitations before new trails were planned. She estimates right now only about 25 percent of trails currently used in the Grandfather ranger district, where she lives, are designated.
The final plan, released last month, gave recreational users what they asked for: no restrictions will be put into place until new trail planning is complete.
“They took our version of it. They used our words,” Perot said, referring the Back Country Horsemen objection filed with the Forest Service.
NC Forest Supervisor James Melonas said he understood the need to balance user access with proper planning.
“We've identified several places around the forest where we know we have an issue with the current trail system not really meeting the needs and the demand that's out there,” Melonas said.
When people use undesignated trails, this often leads to erosion and other trail management issues, he explained.
“The idea is, within a certain area, we convene communities, government partners with all the different user groups to look at a trail network within an area and look at the different uses and make sure that we're creating something that is sustainable,” Melonas said.
He says designated trails can also reduce conflict between people who want to use the trail in different ways.
Julie White is a representative from the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association (SORBA) and a member of the Nantahala Pisgah Forest Partnership. White often mountain bikes on trails near her home in Black Mountain.
“I got into it 35 years ago when we moved to the mountains and I started out just wanting to ride my mountain bike,” White said.
She has worked alongside Perot in the partnership group for the last decade. SOBRA submitted a similar objection to the Forest Service about the trail planning but White says the needs for bikers and horseback riders are different.
“It's important to have the variety of mountain bike trails, but it's also important to the mountain bike community to have access to some of those Forest Service trails that are lead to special places and gives us a special experience,” White said.
Melding the needs and wants for the two different groups will admittedly not be easy, Perot acknowledged.
“No one wants to write down these undesignated trails. Nobody wants to give up their honey holes and such – and that’s a hard thing I would just say,” Perot said.
Despite their differences, the two groups found common ground when they looked at the draft plan.
“Deirdre and I worked a lot together on the language of this, but we wanted to make sure that those trails were looked at, that were being used, that they were identified and looked at and evaluated, before a decision was made to close them,” White said.
White expects the trail planning to start with an evaluation of the current trails.
“There aren't good maps of what trails are most important to the different user groups, which provide the best connections and feed into a good usable trail system," White said. "And then we need to look to at which ones are sustainable over time.”
The collaborative trail planning process could start this year and will likely be organized through a committee of different types of recreation stakeholders, Perot said. She expects the trail planning process will take at least 5 years.
The reactions to the final plan are not all positive. Perot expressed disappointment as member of the Nantahala Pisgah Forest Partnership.
“The entire forest is so interrelated with all of the interest groups. We can’t just look at the trail. We have to look at the entire part of it,” said Perot. White agrees that many members of the group are disappointed about parts of the plan.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, another member of the Nantahala Pisgah Forest Plan, said the plan increases logging and does not protect old growth trees.
“The Forest Service had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to map out a better future for these two incredible forests, but this Forest Plan is instead a step backwards. The plan not only dramatically expands where and how much logging will happen, but it puts the wildlife habitats, backcountry areas, and old growth areas that make the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests special on the chopping block,” Sam Evans, leader of SELC’s National Forests and Parks Program, said in a press release.
The NPFP recommended a number of specific guidelines that the Forest Service did not include at the plan level but will instead be left up to a project-by-project basis.
“The partnership felt like what we gave them in our comments in 2020. We pretty much felt like they could have just put their name on it and it would have been a complete plan,” Perot said. “We pretty much felt like we crossed all of the T’s and dotted all of the I’s for them. But they didn’t feel that – and that’s their management.”
She says she realizes the administrative limitations of the Forest Service.
“I think there are a whole lot more constraints that we don’t understand – that I don’t understand – about how they do their job and what they can adopt from ours and what they can’t,” Perot said.
Perot says she values the people that she meets in the local forests when she is on her horse out on the trail.
“When you've got hikers and bikers and equestrians and mountain runners and fly fishermen all sharing a trail, they all have something to give to each other and to enhance each other's experience,” she said. “I think that does not get said enough.”