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What’s in the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan – and when the new policies will start

Wayah_Bald_2021_cropped_2.jpg
Lilly Knoepp
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Wayah Bald is in the Nantahala Mountains Geographic Area of the Nantahala Pisgah Forest Plan.

The pandemic, over 10,000 public comments and more have all had a hand in delaying the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan.

Here’s the latest on the strategic plan that will manage over 1 million acres of national forest in Western North Carolina.   

James Melonas is the forest supervisor of the National Forests in North Carolina. Here’s how he describes how close the plan is to being completed:

“So it’s kind of like we have the house under contract. We’re moving toward closing. We haven’t gone to closing to sign all the papers but that’s where we are right now,” said Melonas.  

There is still a final 60-day period when those who have previously commented on the plan can share objections. The Forest Service will resolve those objections during a 5-month objections period and can amend the plan. There are very specific rules on how to object which you can find online.

Michelle Aldridge is planning team leader for the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan. Work on the plan started around 2012, with the last draft presented in February 2020.  It gave four options of what would be included in the final plan. Aldridge says this newest draft is a compromise of those previous options. It also includes the final environmental impact study on the plan.

“I really think of [this version] as the public involvement, the landing of all of those topics and they really speak to what we are really trying to do under the umbrella of the plan,” said Aldridge.  

There are four main topics that show up throughout the plan. They sound simple but these are key drivers of the plan. Aldridge lists them: “To sustain healthy ecosystems, connect people to the land, provide clean and abundant water, and do all that through the lens of partnering with others.”

Melonas says these themes were unifying for the many stakeholders who were involved in the planning process. Groups like the Nantahala Pisgah Forest Partnership, which is made up of over 20 organizations, were just some of the stakeholders in the planning process.  

“While there are certain things, that sometimes can be divisive in the plan. These were all things that we held in common,” said Melonas.  

For example, water:

“You know clean and abundant water is going to be critical. The water that flows from the Nantahala Pisgah serves not just communities here but all in the Southeast,” said Melonas.  

Beyond these broad themes, the plan digs into five general land management areas plus 11 specific areas such as heritage corridors and backcountry. All of these have different recommendations for management (this can be found on page 207).

Within those management recommendations there are two tiers (explained on page 301). One plan based on the current amount of funding and staff available to the forest service and a second option of what the forest service would do with more money or creative partnerships. Melonas says this additional option was one of the main requests they heard from the public.

Sustaining healthy ecosystems is also a top priority for the plan. Melonas shares a few highlights of that section:

“Moving us toward the young forests type is really key and we heard that from many of our partners. Getting more prescribed fire is really important for forest health and fire risk and those objectives around how we create that sustainable trail network over time,” said Melonas.   

If this document is starting to sound unwieldy and technical – that’s because it is. Aldridge explains that folks who are looking for a more digestible way to understand the plan can look at the reader’s guide or find the specific areas of the forest that they spend time in.

In the geographic areas chapter(on page 145), the forests are broken down into 12 different mini geographies such as the Eastern Escarpment, Highland Domes and Nantahala Gorge.  

“I think for people who are interested in a part of the forest rather than the whole 1.1 million acres. I think that is a really accessible way to see how we will take these over arching objectives and translate them to opportunities in different parts of the forest,” said Aldridge.  

That breakdown will also highlight other sections of the plan that you should look to for more details.  

For example, Bent Creek Experimental Forest in Asheville is in the Pisgah Ledge geographic area. The experimental forest is also used as a recreation trail. If you look at the experimental forest section, you can learn more about the plans for Bent Creek. For example, the plan outlines a standard that “The trail system in Bent Creek Experimental Forest will not be expanded, except to support research goals or to relocate exiting trails to protect resources.” This can be found in the experimental forest section (on page 236) not in the Pisgah section.

Updates from the previous draft are highlighted throughout. One highlighted section about the Appalachian Trail (on page 242) adds that trail shelters, designated overnight sites, and privies “should be periodically evaluated for need, improvement, relocation, or removal.”

Another feature that Aldridge and Melonas highlight was the involvement of indigenous tribes in the creation of the plan.

The Forest Service says it worked with the 12 federally recognized tribes who have an interest in this region.  In the plan, it states that the Forest Service “recognizes that tribal connections in Western North Carolina extend to time immemorial.”  In the “connecting the people to the land” sections for each geographic area, a list of historic sites such as Cherokee towns are included.  

Aldridge says traditional indigenous knowledge has been worked into many different parts of the plan.

“It recognizes traditional ecological knowledge as part of project design for the future and also talks about how we will monitor sustainable harvesting practices with traditional ecological knowledge,” said Aldridge.

The plan will be finalized and policies should be enacted later this year. 

Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.