By Travis Hall
The U.S. Forest Service drew criticism from many western North Carolina conservationists in November when it announced a draft plan that will guide the future of the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests for the next 15 years.
Environmentalists balked at a proposal within the plan that would open nearly 700,000 acres — roughly 70 percent of the contiguous 1 million acres that make up the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests — to large-scale timber harvesting operations.
“There are many places of significant value that go unrecognized in the current plan,” says Josh Kelley, a field biologist with the Western North Carolina Alliance. “Areas that contain old-growth forests, rare species habitat, and have high recreational value are being lumped into the same categories as areas that do not have those qualities.”
Stevin Westcott, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Forest Service, says that “scientific forestry” will always be the basis for any permitted timber harvests. He points out that, while the overall acreage available for timber harvest has increased in the current draft plan, harvesting is down by 35 percent over the last 25 years. He also says that logging will never be allowed on rocky outcroppings or near streams.
Kelley also expressed concern about the state of oil and gas regulations in the two forests.
“The gas boom facilitated by fracking has created a demand for more energy pipelines, and national forests are often easier and cheaper to deal with than hundreds of small landowners,” he says. “The forest plan needs to include protections against poorly planned and cited energy development.”
The current plan does not anticipate fracking or natural gas pipelines, but the revision process will include a new survey of the forests for oil and gas.
All national forests have governing plans that are updated periodically. Nantahala and Pisgah are among the first national forests to conduct their planning process under a new policy that was established in 2012. The Forest Service hopes to complete the plan in 2016. A comment period on potential wilderness areas runs through the middle of December, and several plan alternatives will be released for review in June 2015.
To offer input, contact the Forest Service at NCPlanRevision@fs.fed.us, or mail comments to National Forests in North Carolina, Nantahala-Pisgah Plan Revision, 160 Zillicoa St., Suite A, Asheville, N.C. 28801.