Brittney Burns – Staff Writer

From the time the United States Forest Service first released a list of 54 areas for possible consideration for Congressional wilderness designations in 2015, public input on how the forest management plan process should go has been loud and diverse.

Western North Carolina counties have voiced their opinions in the form of resolutions, and activist groups and members of the public have spoken during public comment periods and have written letters to state and national leaders.

Since 2015, while the forest service has been in an evaluation process demonstrating how each of the 54 areas identified either does or doesn’t meet criteria to be designated as wilderness, the public has been doing its own research and voicing their opinions. With so many different groups, organizations and agencies having a seat at the table in the process, Congressman Mark Meadows held a listening session in Macon County last week to solicit specific input from invited stakeholders, governing bodies, and emergency management agencies operating within the 11th Congressional District.

“I have always believed that our officials at the local level are always closest to the issues going on and they best understand the risks involved with plans like these,” said Congressman Meadows. “That’s why we wanted to hear directly from you all, the county managers, commissioners, and emergency directors, so you all can help me in making the most informed decision I can.”

Five areas in Macon County are currently on the list to be considered for designated wilderness areas. If the areas make it into the National Wilderness Preservation System, the areas would be managed as wilderness areas and access would be restricted.

Allen Nicholas, supervisor for the National Forest, who has served in his post for the last six months said that anything the National Forest recommends during the evaluation process is just that, a recommendation, and ultimately, a final decision is up to Congress.

The U.S. Forest Service can take action on recommending that new acreage within Western North Carolina’s two national forests as soon as 2017. Meadows would be a major player in that recommendation, assuming he retains his seat in November after the election in which he is running against Bryson City Democrat Rick Bryson.  Generally, such recommendations either originate from or come with the support of Congressmen who serve the district impacted by the evaluation. In terms of the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest management plan,  the  majority of potential wilderness additions outlined by the Forest Service are within Meadows’ Congressional district.

Within Meadows’ district, nearly all county government boards, including Macon County, have passed resolutions against any additional wilderness designations within the national forests. Jackson County is the lone county to pass a resolution in favor. Meadows hosted the listening session to invite county leaders from his district to have an open discussion on the plan and give them the opportunity to voice their concerns.

“I feel like it is important that we get a real, open, honest, dialogue,” said Meadows. “An overwhelming majority of county officials have expressed great concerns with some of the proposed additions to the plans. I fully support additional funding for the US Forest service as long as both ranger districts plan to use those resources to manage the forest and provide greater access for recreational use. It would be premature for us to weigh in on any proposed legislation, but I do want to continue to emphasize active forest management and greater access for recreational use.”

One significant focus of last week’s listening session surrounded the safety aspect of additional wilderness areas. Congressman Meadows said that one point he hasn’t heard discussed as much as he would like is how additional areas would be served in terms of emergency management.

Wilderness areas have restrictions that prohibit motorized vehicles and tools from being used within their boundaries. While horseback riding and hiking are permitted and give the public access to wilderness areas, there are rarely roads within the areas. So in the event someone hikes or rides a horse into the wilderness and has an accident, emergency personnel would be limited in their rescue efforts. Additional wilderness areas mean more acreage that emergency personnel would have to be prepared for in such a situation.

The protocol for emergency personnel to conduct rescue efforts was also a concern from local officials. Before being permitted to enter a wilderness area, emergency personnel often have to gain permission from the forest service, which causes concern when rescue efforts need to be conducted quickly in life or death situations.

Nicholas and Meadows encouraged those attending the listening sessions to continue the dialogue on the forest service management plan through the open houses scheduled throughout the fall.

“We appreciate all the local officials who attended and gave their thoughts, and we look forward to hearing more input – -including the additional six public forums to be held by the Forest Service –where members of the community can make their voices heard,” sad Meadows.

Open houses

The Forest Service has scheduled open houses at all six Nantahala and Pisgah district offices from mid Sept-mid October.

These drop-by events will allow members of the public to visit their local district for informal discussions on the developing forest plan as well as other activities happening at the district.

– Sept 15, 3-6 pm, Nantahala Ranger District Office, 90 Sloan Rd, Franklin

– Sept 22, 3-6 pm, Cheoah Ranger District Office, 1070 Massey Branch Rd, Robbinsville

– Sept 27, 3-6 pm, Tusquitee Ranger District Office, 123 Woodland Dr, Murphy

– Oct 6, 3-6 pm, Grandfather Ranger District, 109 Lawing Dr, Nebo

– Oct 12, 3-6 pm, Pisgah Ranger District Office, 1600 Pisgah Hwy, Brevard

– Oct 13, 3-6 pm, Appalachian Ranger District Office, 632 Manor Rd, Mars Hill