The Missing Middle

No one has fought harder for cooperation than Brent Martin, Southern Appalachian director of The Wilderness Society. Surprisingly, Martin has been lobbying against wilderness designation in order to accommodate a broader base of recreation users.

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“I could have stayed safely in my conservation corner and advocated for more wilderness,” says Martin. “But then everyone else would stay in their corners and nothing would change. After years of working on forest planning, it was clear that we needed a new, more cooperative approach.”

Martin invited timber and hunting leaders to join together with conservation and recreation representatives to form the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership. After three years of meetings and dialogue, the partnership has reached broad conceptual agreement on most of the forest planning issues: they have agreed to recommend more logging acreage while also increasing the amount of protected areas for conservation.

However, the Forest Service decided not to formally recognize the partnership. Instead, the Forest Service spent over $100,000 to create its own group: the Stakeholders Forum. It includes many of the same representatives from the partnership, but it also adds a few outspoken members who, thus far, have impeded any compromise. As a result, the Stakeholders Forum has been deeply entrenched and unable to reach consensus.

“The Forest Service has undercut our middle-ground partnership and stacked their Stakeholders Forum with a few extremists from hunting groups who are unwilling to compromise at all,” says Martin.

“The original partnership did not reflect the full spectrum of users,” replies Forest Service deputy supervisor Matt McCombs. “The Stakeholders Forum is a more diverse representation of forest interests.”

21 of the 27 members of the Stakeholders’ Forum are older white males. There are no minorities or youth representatives.

But Martin wasn’t ready to give up on collaboration, so he forged yet another coalition. This time, he brought together mountain bikers and wilderness advocates—two recreation groups that traditionally had not worked together. The Wilderness Act does not allow bicycles in wilderness, so even conservation-minded mountain bikers often found themselves unable to support wilderness proposals for the Pisgah-Nantahala.

Martin met with mountain bike leaders and hammered out a proposal for a new National Recreation Area in Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest. The proposal would open the Harpers Creek and Lost Cove Wilderness Study Areas near Boone, N.C., to mountain bike use, removing its Congressional Wilderness Study Area status and simultaneously replacing it with a National Recreation Area designation that would protect its wild character permanently. Over 40 regional organizations and businesses also signed on to support the National Recreation Area proposal.

“It made national headlines. It was a precedent-setting agreement,” says Martin. “We showed that groups with competing agendas could come together and find common ground.”

But then “one obstructionist tanked the whole deal,” says Martin.

The ink had barely dried on the agreement when John Wilson, a local businessman whose family owns the Blowing Rock attraction and has deep roots in the area, organized opposition to the National Recreation Area proposal. Other organizations, including Appalachian Voices and Sierra Club, joined him. Wilson, who has worked for many years with land trusts and conservation interests, including many major funders, did not want to open two Wilderness Study Areas to shared use with mountain bikers.

“We have so little Wilderness in North Carolina,” says Wilson. “The Harper Creek and Lost Cove Wilderness Study Areas contain some of the most pristine headwater streams, waterfalls, and old growth forest in the East.”

Ironically, failure to reach an agreement for Harper Creek and Lost Cove has diminished support for more wilderness across the national forest. Because the National Recreation Area would have created an important new mountain biking opportunity, the mountain bike community was prepared to support over 100,000 acres of additional wilderness recommendations in the Pisgah-Nantahala. That support is now at best uncertain.

“It’s been heartbreaking,” says Martin, who is no longer with The Wilderness Society. “Extremists on both sides have undermined every effort to cooperate and find middle ground,” says Martin. “Clearly there are easy compromises that nearly everyone agrees on, but a few extremely vocal individuals have hijacked the entire forest plan, and the Forest Service has enabled it to  happen.”