North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures
Help Protect the Vulnerable Wildlands of the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests

Op-Ed: Collaboration is key to forest planning

Authors: Josh Kelly, Public Lands Field Biologist, MountainTrue
Hugh Irwin, Landscape Conservation Planner, The Wilderness Society
Ben Prater, Director of Conservation, Wild South

In the past two weeks we have seen some very promising signals from the Forest Service regarding the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan Revision. In both the Asheville Citizen-Times and at the Feb. 5 public meeting in Big Ivy, Forest Service officials talked about taking a step back and allowing time for collaboration among stakeholders to be successful. This is fantastic news, because it signals that the Forest Service is willing to reconsider its draft proposal, which means that dozens of special areas, such as Big Ivy, Bluff Mountain, Fires Creek, the Highlands Plateau, and other beloved backcountry areas stand a chance to end up in protected management areas, rather than management areas intended for timber production. While the Forest Service has downplayed the significance of slating these areas for timber production, it has also acknowledged that the initial proposal left these areas open for logging. As the high turnout at the Big Ivy meeting showed, there are many special places in the Nantahala and Pisgah National forests that are treasured by local communities and deserve more consideration in the forest plan revision process.

This “step back” also means the process of collaboration and negotiation among various stakeholders has a better chance of success. Up to this point, the forest plan revision has been moving too fast and at times this has created the appearance that the deadline is more important than the process or the outcome. For example, the ongoing Potential Wilderness Inventory has moved forward much faster than the ability of stakeholder groups to determine which backcountry areas are appropriate to be recommended as wilderness areas and which ones should be protected in other ways. The agency has already begun to fix some mistakes in the inventory, allowing public comment on two areas that were wrongly excluded, and we hope the agency will now take the time to fix the other problems so all our special backcountry areas get a fair shake.

The reset by the Forest Service indicates the agency is committed to crafting a forest plan that is collaborative, scientific, and broadly supported. We believe that there is a win-win outcome for all of those engaged in forest planning and we have been working toward that end for almost three years. We know collaboration and negotiation take time and relationship building, and we are committed to putting the effort in to work well with other groups who care about these forests. The process of planning for the future of one of the nation’s most important and beloved forests is complex, and the Nantahala-Pisgah will benefit from this decision to leave space for stakeholders to work out some of the most difficult issues. We are committed to that outcome, and envision a future when decision-making surrounding our National Forests is characterized by a sense of community, rather than conflict.

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