Record numbers of public comments, the government shutdown and innovations have all been factors in the slow pace of the release of the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest Management Plan.
Here’s an update from the U.S.D.A. Forest Service.
The new plan will provide strategies for managing both forests over the next 15 years.
The forest plan doesn’t just impact conservationists. Fisherman, horsemen, rock climbers and business people are all interested in how the management of over 1 million acres of forest will change.
All of these groups are represented in the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership. Over 20 organizations make up the group which started in 2013. They have been meet monthly to hash out compromises that they are planning to present to the Forest Service.
Tom Thomas of the North Carolina Horse Council says this has been a long time coming.
“To give folks an idea of time span I’m 60 then and I’m 70 now. Well I think it’s a plan worth waiting on and it’s a lot more complicated than people think,” says Thomas. “But it’s come a long way and we are going to be seeing the draft in the near future.”
For horsemen like Thomas, roads and trails must be maintained for riding. To conservationists, new roads - or even maintenance – can spell disaster for delicate ecosystems.
“We won’t all have 100 percent success but we will focus on success and we will get the job done,” explains Thomas. He says the group has learned a lot from each other.
Megan Sutton is the Blue Ridge Program Director of the Nature Conservancy. She’s part of a committee that is working on solutions for the points of contention between factions of the partnership.
“We’re looking for threads that cut across of the different interests and weave those together,” says Sutton. “ The reason people are at the table is because there is a recognition that they will get more of what they want if they collaborate versus if it’s just factions that are in controversy – and I think that’s what keeps people coming back.”
John Rich is the state rep for Trout Unlimited, a fishing organization. He says that building trust between the different organizations – as well as the Forest Service - has been a big part of the group.
“I remember 20, 30 or 40 years ago the idea that someone from Forest Products and someone from the Wilderness department sitting at the same table together and having a discussion – well that just wasn’t going to happen,” says Rich.
For the most part, “forest products” translates to the timber industry. Timber is still one of the biggest economic drivers in Western North Carolina – but now tourism is on the rise. That's just one change in the forest.
In addition to the partnership’s work, the Forest Service has also hosted over 40 public meetings and received over 20-thousand comments. Michelle Aldridge is the team leader for the Nantahala and Pisgah Forest plan at the Forest Service.
“I think there has been some misconception about that so we’ve had a lot of public comments from the beginning so it’s not that we got a huge blast of comments at certain point in the process that slowed us down,” says Aldridge. “It’s that we’ve been trying to incorporate comprehensively what we’ve heard at each step of the way and that in and of itself take time.”
There was also the partial government shutdown earlier this year which lasted over a month.
“So that was analysis time that we lost but we are finding our feet and our path forward,” says Aldridge.
Right now, Aldridge says the Forest Service is focusing on the environmental impact analysis for different alternative solutions that will be a part of the proposed plan. She says that some of the innovations in the plan include management of recreation, fire and more.
“Our current plan was written in 1994 so we have a lot of new information since then so we are kind of turning the page and modernizing those concepts,” says Aldridge.
The Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership expects the plan to come out in the early summer – Aldridge couldn’t confirm that fact. She says it will be out before the end of the year.
“Ultimately we know that the plan needs public support and the enthusiasm to make these goals complete,” she says.
That plan is also just a draft. It will trigger a 90-day public comment period - and another round of compromise for all parties involved. The final plan will be approved in 2020.