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Help plan future of national forests

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11/26/2012 - Help plan future of national forests
by Karen Chavez - Asheville Citizen Times

ASHEVILLE -- Chris Strout loves mountain biking the gnarly, speedy, single-track trails of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests near his home.

But the president of Pisgah Area SORBA (Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association) wants to make sure those trails, and the rich and scenic forest resources surrounding them, will be there for his young children when they are grown.

To this end Strout, Pisgah Area SORBA and many others with an interest in plotting the future of Western North Carolina's national forests, will take part in the first phase of the three-phase process of revising the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests Land and Resource Management Plan.

The document, expected to take at least three years to complete, will guide management of Nantahala and Pisgah forests -- some of the country's most highly visited forests -- for about 15 years.

"Membership in Pisgah SORBA has grown 25 percent in the last nine months to about 250 members, and nationally for IMBA membership has grown 30 percent in the past two years," said Strout, who works for Cane Creek Cycling Components and lives in Hendersonville.

"We know that mountain biking is as popular as ever. Pisgah is the most visited Forest Service district outside of the ski areas in Colorado, and a lot of those visitors are mountain bikers and mountain bikers who come from all over the world to ride. We want to work with the Forest Service to optimize their plans for the next 15-20 years for the continuing increase in users."

Mountain bikers weren't even on the map when the last plan for Pisgah and Nantahala national forests was devised in 1987, Strout said. In the past 25 years, the forest landscape and its user profile has changed dramatically, and that is something the new plan will have to address, said Stevin Westcott, U.S. Forest spokesman.

Nantahala and Pisgah -- two of four national forests in North Carolina managed by the U.S. Forest Service, including the Uwharrie and the Croatan -- cover a 1 million-acre swath of the mountainous Western North Carolina. Together, they are among the most visited national forests in the nation, with 6-7 million visitors a year.

Each forest in the country is directed to revise its management plan every 15 years as a blueprint for guiding the agency on how to manage for timber, wildlife, water, recreation and other uses.

Earlier this year, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the release of a new National Forest System Land Management Planning Rule, which will place a greater emphasis on science and watershed protection while promoting multiple uses such as logging and recreation, when developing new forest plans.

The Nantahala and Pisgah Forest Plan will be among the first to be revised under the new planning rule. Taking place over the next three to four years, the plan will have three phases: assessment , which will include data collection on current forest conditions; planning , which will involve analyzing data and determining management practices needed; and monitoring , in which the plan implementation will be monitored until the next plan revision.

Focus on conservation, collaboration

"There are two key components to the plan -- one is using the best available science and the other is collaboration," Westcott said. "We will start having public meetings in all of the districts in February. We will invite stakeholders, scientists, researchers, the public, nonprofits, everyone, to learn more and to share with us what's happening out there on the land."

In the first phase, which is expected to be completed by the fall of 2013, forest service personnel will collect data on the current state of Pisgah and Nanatahala, focusing on what changes are needed to the management plan.

They will be seeking advice from all interested parties, including mountain bikers, hikers, conservation groups, horseback riders, hunters, anglers and scientists, on everything from the state of the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, to the quality of air, soil and water, and conditions of trails and other recreation and cultural resources, Westcott said.

The forest service has a deadline of three years to finish the new management plan -- an enormous task, considering the forests' size and makeup, with communities that vary from dry yellow pines to high-elevation northern hardwoods and spruce-fir forests. They have almost 1,900 types of plants, including about 130 tree species and more than 300 species of vertebrate animals.

The types of f orest uses also vary broadly, from whitewater rafting to camping and picnicking, hiking and mountain biking, horseback riding to off-road vehicle riding and timber harvesting and research.

"When the original plan was drafted in the '80s, timber harvesting was a practice of greater importance, and that's changed quite a bit," Westcott said. "We harvest a fraction of the timber we used to. It has dropped 65 percent in the last 20 years. Now, one of the major issues we will be looking at is recreation. It's probably risen to one of the key issues. Recreation and tourism have increased significantly over the years."

This is where the public comes in, and every voice is crucial, said Brent Martin, regional director for The Wilderness Society, based in Sylva.

"There are elements that drive forest management in a more progressive way than in the past," Martin said. "We will move probably toward an outcome that will be fairly representative of various interest groups in WNC, such as resource extraction, hunting and fishing, conservation and recreation. We'd like to see a plan more reflective of the reality of WNC."

Martin said that when the original forest management plan was devised, the region was not as populated, and it was more resource extraction-based, whereas now it is more recreation-based.

"There's been a huge demographic shift in last 15-20 years," he said.

While recreational activities such as mountain biking and hiking are much more prolific than in the past two decades, and are much larger economic drivers, conservation should also play a bigger role in the new management plan, Martin said.

Some focus areas might include air, water and soil quality, removal of invasive species, protection of endangered species such as the Indiana bats being killed from white-nose syndrome and hemlock trees dying from hemlock woolly adelgid, and reintroduction of the American chestnut tree.

"We all agree on the fact that there's a much bigger demand for stewardship on forest land. Public partnerships are really the future of this forest, and I think we can create public-private partnerships that will really serve the forest and the public," Martin said.

"There will be a different relationship than has historically been on the forest. Groups like the Carolina Mountain Club and groups like The Wilderness Society are going to be increasingly depended upon."

Those partnerships are already starting to emerge, he said, with initiatives such as the Grandfather Restoration Project, a 10-year project designed to restore 40,000 acres of the Grandfather Ranger District in Pisgah National Forest.

The project, which began in March, is restoring fire-adapted forests with controlled burns and other methods to enhance conditions for a variety of native plants and wildlife, controlling non-native species and protecting hemlocks from the invasive adelgid beetles.

Some of the many partners in the project include: Southern Blue Ridge Fire Learning Network, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, N.C. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, Wild South, the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, Trout Unlimited, The Southern Forest Network, Land-of-Sky Regional Council, WNC Alliance, and The Wilderness Society.

The project has reduced hazardous fuels on nearly 4,600 acres of the Grandfather District through prescribed burning, saved some 2,600 hemlock trees; and treated 750 acres to remove invasive land and water species, among other tasks.

Strout, of SORBA, said the mountain biking group has also been working closely with the Forest Service and other user groups, to develop sustainable trails and lessen impact on forest resources.

As far as the first phase of the new management plan, Strout said, "it's now in the public domain. What we as partners with the forest service need to do is convince the public that this next set of public meetings is something that has to get done.

"The public needs to come out and take feedback to the forest service. It's what's best for the forest and what's best for forest users 10 years down the line. My daughter is turning 4 and my son is 1. I want them to know what Pisgah is. It's such an awesome place."

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