A publication of Appalachian Voices

A publication of Appalachian Voices

Nantahala-Pisgah Plan Q&A: Michelle Aldridge

Michelle Aldridge

Michelle Aldridge. Photo courtesy of Michelle Aldridge

Michelle Aldridge is the U.S. Forest Service’s planning staff officer for the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest plan revision.

Tell me about your relationship with the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. How do you use these lands?

“I’m a forest user just as much as I am an employee. I take my family there, I recreate on the weekends, it’s part of the magic of Western North Carolina. All of us who work on the plan love the forest. It’s why we enjoy our work and why we think it’s so important and such an incredible opportunity to do this work and to help chart the path to the future.”

Do you have a favorite place in the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests?

“There’s a lot of them, I don’t want to pick just one.”

What should the national forest provide that’s not in the surrounding landscape?

“I think that the forest has a unique interest and opportunity to provide resources that are otherwise scarce, that are not as likely to be found as they are on public land. That could be a lot of different things. We have some of the most biodiverse ecosystems here in the Nantahala-Pisgah. We also have really valuable, really important water from an ecological perspective. Also a lot of publicly accessible recreation sites and hunting and fishing. So all of those things are important on public land.”

What has it been like working with the public through the forest planning process?

“We’ve had a lot of public involvement, an unprecedented amount. We’ve had a lot of public meetings throughout the process, and we’re trying to reach as many members of the public who have an interest to share with us in the national forest.”

Why has there been so much public involvement this time around?

“It was pretty typical in the past that we would develop a proposal and we’d share it with the public and say, ‘What do you think?’ Whereas now, we’ve gone to the public much earlier to say, ‘Help us form this plan, help us identify what needs to change and give us your thoughts.’ We shared pre-draft building blocks of the plan, so hopefully when the draft comes out in the fall, people see their ideas reflected in it based on all the things they’ve shared with us to date.”

“I think that’s one reason there’s an unprecedented amount of feedback to date, because we’ve been asking for the input up front to help build the plan. It’s also one of the things that’s taking us some time right now in terms of making sure the draft that we put out is truly responsive to the interests.”

What impact has the 2012 Forest Planning rule had on the process?

“This is our newest planning rule, it has a sustainability approach that is grounded in ecological, social and economic sustainability. Overall this new planning rule allows us to more fully consider all the multiple uses that are present on the landscape. So we have put a lot more emphasis on recreation, there’s a lot more emphasis on cultural values and heritage values, the native knowledge and local knowledge that our tribal interests bring. There is still a strong emphasis on ecology.”

“In general, the planning rule brings forward a lot of the principles that have been important in forest management for a long time and just codifies them and puts them into a policy so that we can bring all of these ideas forward in a strategic guidance document. We were doing all of these things before, but they weren’t all addressed in the forest plan in the way that they can be now.”

What was the Forest Service’s main focus when creating forest plans in the past?

“Previous forest plans were focused a lot more on output, like how many board-feet [of timber] are we going to produce, how many acre-feet of water are going to be coming off the land. It was more about those outputs, whereas now the shift is to be about outcome. Are we achieving our forest health goals, how will the wildlife habitat look? Are we providing all the different ages of forest? It’s more desired-condition focused and are we achieving our long term goals.”

Why is the forest plan revision process important?

“If you think about the status of things the last time the plan was updated [in 1994], CDs were just coming out. Technologies change. A lot of technology and ways that we can manage the forests have improved over time. So this is an opportunity to update with our latest thinking on the direction of the forest for the future. I think it’s important for people to know about and be involved in because it’s public land, it’s land that is shared by all of us. Management of that land is something that Americans have a stake in.”

How should the interests of stakeholder groups be balanced?

“I think ultimately on 1.1 million acres we can accomplish our shared goals. I think there’s space and opportunity to achieve our mutual interests. All the interests at the table want to see a healthy forest. Where you find common ground is around the values that people have. To reflect all the public input we received, we added a new chapter and we broke the forest into 12 different geographic areas. And we developed goals for each section of the forest to reflect back a lot of the comments that we heard.”

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