Plan released addressing Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests

In the new plan developed by the USDA Forest Service, special places and rare species are recognized and protected for unique ecological, biological, scenic and cultural values. Photos by Deena C. Bouknight

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service  released its final revised Nantahala-Pisgah Forest plan, which was established to guide the future management of the national forests in Western North Carolina. The report, available online and titled “Final Land Management Plan – Southern Region – National Forests in North Carolina – R8 MB-160 – January 2023,” addresses “incredibly complex challenges like climate change and invasive species, impacts from development on adjacent private lands, and high levels of visitor use,” said James Melonas, forest supervisor of the National Forests in North Carolina.  The report’s goal, he noted, is “Ensuring our forest ecosystems are healthy and resilient is critical to long-term sustainability of all the habitats and ecosystem benefits on which we all depend.”

Part of the plan’s verbiage reads: “The forest plan guides the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests in fulfilling its stewardship responsibilities to best meet

The USDA Forest Service plan was years in the making, gleaning input from partners and community members on best management practices and creating and maintaining sustainable ecosystems.

the current and future needs of the American people.”

This plan is the result of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ (EBCI) input with the intention of the Forest Service partnering with tribes to co-manage resources while at the same time honoring “traditional ecological knowledge and protecting places of significance to tribes,” pointed out Melonas. “One example of the revised plan in action is the new Tribal Forest Protection agreement the Forest Service has with the Eastern Band Cherokee Indians. This agreement, which began with tribal consultation on the forest plan, enables us to co-steward the forests for shared values with the EBCI.”

The Nantahala National Forest was established in 1920 under authority of the 1911 Weeks Act. This act provided authority to acquire lands for national forests to protect watersheds, to provide timber, and to regulate the flow of navigable streams. It is the largest of North Carolina’s four National Forests, encompassing 531,148 acres, while Pisgah National Forest, established in 1916, comprises 512,000 acres. 

To put together the new forest plan, individuals involved used a science-based approach in regard to individual ecosystems. Special places and rare species are recognized and protected in the plan for unique ecological, biological, scenic, and cultural values.

The 361-page plan recommends, for instance, more wilderness and rivers to be added, attention to forest resiliency in light of climate changes, recognition of the need for additional young, open forests, and attention to restoring species such as oak. 

Michelle Aldridge, the Forest Service’s planning staff officer for the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest plan revision, explained.

“Our current forests are what grew up after extreme logging practices more than 100 years ago, before these lands were national forests,” said Aldridge. “The trees are now mostly the same age and size. We need more young and open forest for wildlife species including bats, ruffed grouse, pollinators, and rare species, such as the golden-winged warbler.”

In addition to a focus on ecosystem health, the plan also prioritizes sustainable recreation, due to the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests being among the most visited forests in the country. Plus, visitors to the forests are increasing annually. Thus, the plan ensures that the latest trail design principles are in place and that nature-related recreation clubs and volunteer groups are consulted regarding trail maintenance and recreation management planning. 

“The revised plan has been developed with extensive input over many years,” said Melonas. “We appreciate the passion, creativity, and patience of all our partners and communities working with us to build a plan that reflects multiple values while ensuring our national forests are sustained for generations to come.”