SYLVA — More than 30 conservation and recreation groups on Dec. 7 announced a proposal on new ways to manage the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, including a new Grandfather National Recreation Area stretching from Blowing Rock to the Linville Gorge.
The coalition recommends more trails and better public access, as well as expanded backcountry and wilderness areas. The coalition submitted a memorandum of understanding outlining the proposal to the U.S. Forest Service to provide input as the USFS continues a multi-year revision of the Forest Plan for the two forests. The plan will guide management of the forests during the next 15 years.
The management and designations proposed by the coalition would create stronger protections for more than 365,000 of the national forest’s nearly 1.1 million acres, including two new National Recreation Areas and more than 109,000 acres of recommended wilderness, according to a statement from the coalition.
As part of the Forest Plan revision process, the USFS is evaluating potential changes to existing management areas, including the different types of activities permitted in each area to provide for desired conditions or uses, including forest habitat, backcountry, pristine wilderness areas, rivers and recreation.
The forests’ users includes a diverse group of hikers, backpackers, conservationists, hunters, anglers, mountain bikers, wildlife advocates and others who have not always agreed on the best way to manage the forest. Some would prefer to see a significant expansion of wilderness areas, which would prohibit logging activity, but wilderness areas also ban some recreational activities, such as mountain biking. And hunting and wildlife groups have advocated for an increase in timber activity because they say the forests are lacking in young forest habitat that supports many species.
Josh Kelly, field biologist for Asheville-based environmental and conservation organization MountainTrue, said the proposal represents three years of meetings and compromise by members of the coalition.
“There were some preliminary meetings in advance of the Forest Plan revision where it became clear there was a potential conflict between mountain bikers and the Wilderness Society on wilderness designations,” Kelly said. “Out of that grew this effort to work those issues out.”
Noting that the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest is among the top three most visited national forests in the United States, the coalition says its proposal acknowledges the economic importance of these forests for recreation and tourism and recommends management of these assets in a responsible manner that is both environmentally and economically sound.
The proposal’s key recommendations are two new national recreation areas in Western North Carolina and 109,961 acres in wilderness additions. The recreation areas would include a 115,573-acre Pisgah National Recreation Area and a 57,400-acre Grandfather National Recreation Area.
National recreation area designation would ensure that the forests' natural beauty and ecological diversity are maintained for future generations, while recreation uses such as hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, hunting, fishing, kayaking and climbing is planned and managed for as a long-term priority, the coalition said.
In wilderness areas, hunting, fishing, horseback riding and hiking are among the activities permitted. Wilderness recommendations have to be approved by congressional legislation and signed into law by the president.
National recreation areas managed by the U.S. Forest Service establish recreation as a primary use in a specific geographic area, allowing sustainable infrastructure that facilitates recreational access while preventing damage to the areas, according to the coalition. However, Kelly noted that any gravel roads with the proposed recreation areas would remain gravel.
Timber management is also permitted in a national recreation area, depending on other management designations within the geographic area.
"National recreation areas could increase the ability to manage habitat in some areas," said Kelly.
Examples of other NRAs in the country are the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in Virginia and the Mount Hood National Recreation Area in Oregon, established in 2009.
National recreation area status would legitimize activities such as mountain biking in the Lost Cove and Harper Creek areas, which have been in limbo as wilderness study areas since 1984, as wilderness designation has failed to pass Congress.
"There is tremendous demand in the Boone and Morganton areas for mountain biking," Kelly said.
Paul Stahlschmidt of Boone is president of the Northwest NC Mountain Bike Alliance — one of the signatories on the coalition's memorandum and an advocate for increased mountain biking opportunities in the Pisgah National Forest.
"All of the signatories on the MOU did not recommend wilderness in any areas that have mountain biking trails," Stahlschmidt said. "In addition, we also considered that there is a glaring and measurable lack of mountain bike access in some areas, and that there are some areas with resource damage where mechanized equipment would be useful to help restore the landscape."
Stahlschmidt said it is important to note that whether designated wilderness or not, many of the management areas in the Forest Service inventory have protections by the "Roadless Area Conservation Rule."
"Because of that, some special areas that were not recommended for wilderness in this MOU are still highly protected from logging and roadbuilding, but can also allow bicycle access," he said.
The coalition includes Access Fund, American Alpine Club, American Whitewater, Back Country Horsemen of America, Back Country Horsemen of Blue Ridge, Back Country Horsemen of North Carolina, Back Country Horsemen of Pisgah, Back Country Horsemen of Western North Carolina, Black Dome Mountain Sports, Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine, Carolina Adventure Guides, Carolina Climbers Coalition, Franklin Bird Club, Friends of Big Ivy, Ground Up Publishing, Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust, Highlands Plateau Audubon Society, Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition, International Mountain Biking Association, MountainTrue, Nantahala Area Southern Off-Road Biking Association, Nantahala Hiking Club, North Carolina Horse Council, Northwest North Carolina Mountain Bike Alliance, Outdoor 76, Outdoor Alliance, Pisgah Area SORBA, Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventures, Southern Appalachian Plant Society, Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, Stay and Play in the Smokies, The Wilderness Society, Trout Unlimited — Unaka Chapter and Wild South.
The coalition urges those who support the proposal to submit comments to the USFS via email at NCPlanRevision@fs.fed.us or by mail at United States Forest Service Supervisor’s Office, 160 Zillicoa St, Suite A, Asheville, NC 28801.
Kelly noted that a final decision on the Forest Plan revision is still more than a year away, and a draft environmental impact statement with different management alternatives is expected in 2016.
"I think that this memorandum is an inspiring vision for people who care about our Southern Appalachian forests and want to see greater protections and greater recreational access," he said. "We welcome all the support we can get on it."
For more information about the proposal, visit www.ncmountaintreasures.org/conservation-and-recreation-memorandum-of-understanding.