old growth
Old growth forest on Brushy Mountain in Nantahala National Forest. Jack Igelman / Wmforo

Within the 1,000-acre footprint of the U.S. Forest Service's proposed Crossover timber project in the Nantahala National Forest are at least 98 acres of rare old-growth forest, including trees two centuries old, biologist Josh Kelly of MountainTrue said. 

“That the National Forest is proposing a timber sale here, and in hundreds of acres of places just like this, is very troubling for the future of these forests,” Kelly said.

The project, which is currently under analysis, proposes timber harvesting, prescribed burning and the improvement of wildlife and botanical habitat in Cherokee and Graham counties.  A draft environmental assessment was released in October 2022 and a final analysis and decision is expected this June.

On top of resistance from environmentalists, Crossover and other upcoming actions and projects could come into conflict with a new Forest Service policy proposed in December 2023, seeking to amend all National Forest plans to emphasize the preservation of old-growth forests.

The proposed nationwide policy could alter the trajectory of future projects, all of which entail public input and provide stakeholders with the opportunity to influence their scope.

“One of the reasons old growth is such a flashpoint is because it's so rare,” Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Sam Evans said. The Forest Service has a regional definition of old growth, but that hasn’t prevented the forest from harvesting patches of old growth according to Evans.

“This proposal is real, meaningful action and will create much-needed consistency around how these incredible tracts of older forests are managed,” he said.

In April 2023 President Biden issued an executive order instructing the U.S. Forest Service to inventory federal lands' old-growth forests within a year to address potential threats for enhanced protection.

In December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a notice of intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement to amend all 128 land management plans for the U.S. National Forest System to ensure consistent direction for conserving existing and stewards old-growth forest conditions.

The amendments would add uniform language to each land management plan. Public comments on the proposal are open until Feb. 2, 2024. The expected release of the proposed action and draft environmental impact statement would be in May 2024. A final decision is expected in January 2025. 

The amendment is “a sincere attempt to shift the agency culture (around old growth), which hopefully will be durable, regardless of what happens in the next election,” Evans said.

National forests are required to have land management plans describing the strategic direction for management of forest resources. The Forest Service revises those plans every 10-20 years or when conditions require an update. The management of forest resources was guided by the 1976 National Forest Management Act.

Finalized last year, the Pisgah and Nantahala land management plan and the environmental impact statement for the national forests of Western North Carolina are available online.  

The plan sets out a strategy to restore ecosystems and watersheds within the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests.  Achieving the plan’s strategies will happen through a range of projects, such as Crossover, focused on a broad list of goals from trail building to forest restoration, with input from stakeholders.

The proposed amendment to protect old-growth acreage, however, has garnered criticism. David Whitmire of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council, or FWCC, a grassroots organization advocating for hunters and anglers, said the proposal undermines local, public collaboration by applying a top-down approach to influence future projects.

The FWCC is pushing for increased forest management to create more habitat for wildlife species that prefer forest openings and early succession habitat, or ESH, which are patches of grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and saplings.

“I just don't think we need to let politics be our guide,” Whitmire said. “All we're going to be doing is playing ping pong with whoever's in power at the time. We’re a citizen-run group that took faith in the system. If somebody can flip the switch and change 10 years of your work, it's kind of a hard pill to swallow.”

Manley Fuller of the nonprofit NC Wildlife Federation and a member of the Nantahala Pisgah Forest Partnership, a collaborative group of national forest advocates, said national forests are critical for wildlife habitat in WNC because of development pressure and loss of private forest land.

But Fuller think “enough land base (is in the national forests) to provide habitat that early successional species require as well as species associated with more mature forest or old growth.” 

“I don’t see it as either or; I think we can do both,” he said.

Deputy director of communications Alan Abernethy of the Forest Service’s Southern Region wrote in an email to CPP that the Nantahala-Pisgah forest plan “makes the biggest commitment to old growth in decades” by increasing the designated old growth network to 25% of the forest. The old-growth network includes 265,000 acres of confirmed old growth or mature forests that will eventually become old growth. 

The proposed amendment, he wrote, would prohibit vegetation management within old-growth forest conditions when the primary purpose is to grow, tend, harvest or regenerate trees for economic reasons. 

“However, the amendment would allow harvest in old-growth forests for other multiple-use values, such as habitat restoration, hazardous fuel reduction, and to support traditional cultural practices, uses and treaty rights,” he said.

Conserving old-growth forests, he added, will involve a combination of passive management tools, allowing forests to mature with minimal intervention, and active management, such as prescribed fire, treating exotic plants or timber thinning.

Old growth and potential conflicts

The amendment to increase protection for old growth, however, doesn’t tackle potential conflicts arising on other sensitive places within the National Forest such as NC natural heritage sites, popular recreation sites, cultural sites, roadless areas and potential wilderness.

Historically, clashes between forest advocates have been driven by deeply rooted historical, cultural and philosophical perspectives.

During the planning stages of the Pisgah-Nantahala land management plan, the Partnership identified areas of the forest with special or unique ecological, recreational, or social value that could be impacted by timber harvesting.

“We know where those areas (of potential conflict) are,” said Partnership member Lang Hornthal of Asheville nonprofit EcoForesters. “The point of our group was to use a history of forest planning in WNC and what we've learned about where conflict often arises.” 

Hornthal said the Partnership will focus on future projects and “how we can help the Forest Service achieve their management objectives.”

“The question is how can the Forest Service best implement projects in contentious parts of the forest?” he said.

Several projects under development, however, may be affected by the proposed amendment before they are finalized.

On January 3, the Forest Service released the final analysis and draft decision for the Nantahala Mountains Project, which would restore 800 acres of forest.  The collaborative effort to develop the project was coordinated with the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the FWCC, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It's a great project,” Whitmire said. The project, he added, aligns with the forest plans strategic emphasis on ecological restoration and the creation of wildlife habitat. The FWCC is not a member of the Partnership, but is among many organizations partnering with the Forest Service to plan, fund and execute projects.

According to Evans of the SELC, the final decision excluded a stand of old growth which he said, “is an indication that (the proposed amendment) is having an effect.”

Abernethy of the Forest Service said “it’s premature to go into details of each project across the country, as the agency is still going through the process.” Proposed management actions within forest stands with old-growth conditions, such as the 95 acres within the Crossover project, will be governed by an interim policy and require approval by the deputy chief of the USDA Forest Service.

The upcoming amendment will not change projects with finalized decisions, such as the Southside Project in the Nantahala National Forest, which entails harvesting trees in a 13-acre tract of old-growth forest

Not all future timber restoration projects, however, will include old growth forests. The sprawling Grandfather, Appalachian and Pisgah Restoration project, or GAP, includes National Forest System lands in three ranger districts of the Pisgah National Forest in 11 counties.

The GAP project will be focused on two key themes of the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, or CFLRP, established by the U.S. Congress to encourage the collaborative, science-based ecosystem restoration of forest landscapes by reducing wildfire risk and restoring fire adapted forests. Details of the project are expected to be finalized in July 2024.

“One of the restrictions for projects receiving CFLRP funding is they cannot result in the harvest of old growth,” Evans said, unless it's absolutely necessary to accomplish project goals.

“It's really ambitious and we’re really supportive of the intent,” he said. “But as always, the devil is in the details”.

And regardless of the proposed amendments, local organizations and the public will still play an important role in shaping future projects, Hornthal said.

“I recommend the public learn more about each project and continue to be advocates for the things that you value in the forest and on public lands,” he said. “Many groups, including the Partnership are still at the table trying to help the Forest Service get it right.”

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Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Wmforo. Contact him at [email protected].