Editor’s Note: I have been following the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest plan for three years. I have attended many meetings, including several in the Big Ivy community where I live. I’ve had candid conversations with dozens of Forest Service leaders, loggers, hunters, and environmentalists. Here’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned: there are no villains in this story. Everyone involved in the forest plan deeply loves the forest and believes that they are fighting for what’s best.
The region is changing: tourism has replaced timber as the main economic engine. An influx of people and development has reshaped land and culture. The forest is changing, too—and so are the values that the forest provides. The national forest continues to provide timber and game, but it’s also become a refuge for rare species and a recreational oasis.
This story asks a simple question: can we all share the forest? It doesn’t have an easy answer.
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You are the owner of a 1.1-million acre mountain estate.
Your property includes cascading waterfalls, ancient forests, and the highest mountains in the East. You can go anywhere you like on your property. You can hike hundreds of miles of trails and paddle, fish, and swim in its pristine streams.
You share ownership equally with every other American, and you pay your staff—the U.S. Forest Service—to manage the property. They maintain the trails and enforce the rules that you make.
Every 20 years, you write a plan that describes how your estate should be managed. You get together with the other owners to hash it out, and your staff writes it all down. This plan is the most important document of your property. It spells out the rules for your property and decides how your property taxes are spent.
But lately, a few vocal co-owners have outshouted everyone else in deciding how your property will be run. Meanwhile, your staff is changing the rules so that they can cut down some of your favorite places in the forest.
The Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest is the third-most-visited national forest in the country. Its popularity has skyrocketed by 136 percent in the past two decades. Over 6.8 million people visited the forest last year, and most of them came to hike, camp, and enjoy its scenic wonders.
The Forest Service recently released a preliminary draft of their forest plan, which will guide the next twenty years of forest decisions. It’s already mired in bitter controversy.
In the draft plan, over 155,000 acres of old-growth forests, popular trails, unique biological areas, and beloved wild places are unprotected. Approximately 60 percent of the forest—630,000 acres—is placed in management areas that allow logging. (The Forest Service says that around 450,000 acres will likely be deemed suitable for timber harvest.)
Hunting groups want even more logging acreage to increase populations of game species like deer and grouse. Recreation and conservation organizations want to protect more of the forest so that logging doesn’t harm sensitive wildlife or damage trails, water, and scenery.
The fight over how to manage national forests is nothing new. Pisgah became the East’s very first national forest in 1912. Immediately, intense debates raged over the future of national forests. Some argued that sustainably cutting timber from the forests made them more productive and useful to Americans. Others believed that protecting the forests’ water, rare species, scenery, and recreational opportunities benefitted more Americans in the long run.
Congress decided in 1960 that national forests should also be managed for multiple uses: timber, watersheds, wildlife, and recreation. In 1964, Congress added wilderness to the list.
A century after acquisition, the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest faces the same basic conflict: Is the forest a resource to be exploited or a sanctuary to be protected? Or both?
The new forest plan draft is much more than a document. It has become a blueprint for the future of Southern Appalachia, with the potential to bring together different groups—rural and urban, locals and newcomers, hunters and hikers—in a shared vision for the region. So far, however, the contentious forest planning process has only deepened the chasms.