U.S. Forest Service spokesman Stevin Westcott provided additional information this week about timber proposals in the ongoing revisions of the Forest Plan for the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests.

The plan originated in 1987 and was last revised in 1994.

The USFS recently released draft proposals for the plan, with a complete draft to be completed for public review in 2015 and adoption slated for 2016. The proposals include a consolidation of “management areas,” which describe the areas of National Forest land available for various uses, including forest habitat, backcountry, wilderness areas, rivers and recreation areas.

When the tables of current and proposed management areas are compared, the combined acreages of management areas that are designated as “suitable” for timber production increases from 540,386 acres in the current plan to 692,700 acres in the plan revision proposal. Timber production is defined on one of the USFS plan revision documents as “the purposeful growing, tending, harvesting and regeneration of regulated crops of trees to be cut into logs, bolts or other round sections for industrial or consumer use.”

The Southern Environmental Law Center responded to the proposal with a press release last week and characterized the draft plan as a “massive logging program,” which was circulated by other environmental groups and via social media. SELC senior attorney D.J. Gerken said an increase in the acreage of management areas in which timber production could take place, along with a proposed requirement to maintain 15 percent of the forests as young successional habitat, would signal a change in direction by the Forest Service in favor of increased logging.

But USFS spokesman Stevin Westcott referred to a land classification table in the 1994 Pisgah-Nantahala Forest Plan to show that the area within the National Forests in which timber production could realistically take place will likely be significantly lower than 692,700 acres.

In that document, 796,030 acres out of the total 1.02 million acres in the two national forests were identified as “tentatively suitable” for timber production. But from that figure, more than 500,000 acres are then identified as “not appropriate for timber production” because it is incompatible with other forest uses or because other uses make timber management unfeasible. Westcott said this would include riparian areas, rocky outcrops and areas protected for other uses, such as wilderness.

Thus, in the 1994 plan, 275,798 acres were identified in the land classification table as “total suitable forest land."

Westcott said a similar process will take place as part of the current revision, but he did not know when a similar land classification table would be developed.

“The reality is probably less than 300,000 acres will actually be suitable (in the revised plan),” Westcott said.

He emphasized, too, that the Forest Service currently logs about 1,500 acres per year, and he said budget restrictions would likely keep timber production close to that level in the future.

“Harvesting currently only occurs on 1,500 acres annually, so the fear over extensive logging in the future is unnecessary,” he said.

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