Forest Plan in Action: NC Forest Supervisor James Melonas explains the basics of the new plan
This is the first in a series “Forest Plan in Action.”
For Forest Supervisor of the North Carolina National Forests James Melonas, the more than a million acres of land that make up the Nantahala and Pisgah forests are a puzzle. After more than a decade of putting the pieces together, the community got a first glimpse at the complex composition when the Forest Service released the long-awaited plan on Friday.
The final puzzle contains four main themes, according to Melonas: restoring forest ecosystems, providing clean and abundant water, connecting people to the land and acting in partnership with others.
The contours of the plan are shaped around the themes and the needs of the specific geographic regions in the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests.
“We've created what we call geographic areas, so different parts of the forest that we have specific goals and objectives to achieve within those,” Melonas said.
For example, the Davidson River area in the Pisgah National Forest near Brevard has more recreation use than a backcountry area further west in the Nantahala National Forest.
“We know that we're going to continue to see changes in climate and the frequency and intensity of storm events and insect and disease outbreaks are going to continue to increase,” Melonas said. “And so we need to be able to adapt over time to those changes and the plan allows us to do that.”
Alongside the final plan, the 754-page environmental impact statement was published as well as the 95-page record of decision which explains the reasoning behind the plan. All those documents and others are available on the Forest Service website.
Changes from the objections
Last January, the final draft plan was released, and stakeholders submitted about 800 eligible objections filed by stakeholders in March 2022. The Forest Service made changes to the final plan based on some of the objections, Melonas said. The final plan added 474 additional acres to the Big Ivy/Craggy Mountain Forest Service Scenic Area and 234 acres at Shope Creek and Snowball Mountain as part of a Special Interest Area. Objections also added a process for collaborative trail planning opportunities with recreation stakeholders. The plan also added the North Fork of the French Broad River to the Wild and Scenic Rivers list based on objections received.
Melonas said the Forest Service team learned a lot from the community during this process. This is the first time that the Forest Service has taken on community input for the Forest Plan in this way.
“We've learned a great deal. The first thing I say is that there's an incredible amount of passion for Nantahala-Pisgah. I haven't met anybody that doesn't love these forests. And we know that there's a great diversity of values and ideas on how best to manage the forests,” Melonas said. “We also are really humbled by the incredible amount of work and dedication from so many partners to help us develop this plan.”
Melonas also highlighted the partnership between federally recognized tribes and the Forest Service in the development of the plan.
"We're very excited and proud of our work consulting with our tribal partners,” said Melonas.
The record of decision lists 12 tribes with historic ties and interests in the management of the Forests in the plan area.
Those tribes include:
• Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas
• Alabama-Quassarte Tribal Town
• Catawba Indian Nation
• Cherokee Nation
• Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana
• Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
• Kialegee Tribal Town
• Muscogee (Creek) Nation
• Poarch Band of Creek Indians
• Thlopthlocco Tribal Town
• United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians
• Shawnee Tribe
Old growth forests and new growth
One focus of the new plan is having different ages of trees throughout the forest, Melonas said. The new forest plan establishes 265,000 acres of the forest as part of an old growth network, an increase of about 50,000 acres of the current old growth network and in the old plan. The network makes up about a quarter of the forest. The large majority of the forest is between 80 to 120 years old because of logging in the past.
“We recognize in the plan that we need more young forest, and we need more old forest and, and what we call open forest, that kind of mosaic fire adapted forest that's a little bit more open,” he said. “And we recognized the need for working to create young forests, which is important for many wildlife species.”
Nine newly eligible wild and scenic rivers
The plan identifies nine waterways as newly eligible to be “wild and scenic rivers,” a federal designation designed “to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.” The Cullasaja River, Fires Creek, Flat Laurel Creek, North Fork French Broad River, Santeetlah Creek, South Toe River, Thompson River, West Fork Pigeon River, and Whitewater River all made the list. These rivers, plus the ten already eligible rivers, brings the total eligible wild and scenic rivers in the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests to 19.
“As we know, Nantahala-Pisgah has some of the most incredible rivers and waterfalls and water systems of any national forest,” Melonas said. ”When we look at ‘wild and scenic rivers,’ those are ones that are outstanding in their values, really stand above and beyond - whether that's for their scenic characteristics or for recreation values.”
The plan identifies a backlog of maintenance needs that the Forest Service plans to address through partnership with local organizations. Melonas cites Tropical Storm Fred in 2021 as one example.
“So what that looks like on the ground is replacing old culverts that we know are going to get blown out in the next storm event with structures that provide passage for trout and other mountain species that rely on those stream and rivers in the forest to better withstand the storm event,” he said.
Addressing the maintenance needs serves another function: making the forest more resilient to climate change by preparing for stronger storms and other tactics.
Issues not addressed in the plan
While the Forest Service Record of Decision includes five main issues addressed during the development of the Forest Plan: Vegetation Patterns and Wildlife Habitats, Special Designations, Access, Recreation, and Economic Contributions of the Forests, it also acknowledges issues not yet addressed.
The plan does not include a decision on oil and gas leasing on the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest or a decision on the management of the Chattooga River, which was designated as Wild and Scenic around 1974.
The Forest Service declined to include an oil and gas leasing decision because of the low potential for commercial development of oil and gas deposit in the Forests, according to the decision. “If technologies change and there is interest in commercial interest in developing those resources, the oil and gas availability will be re-evaluated at that time,” the decision states.
Ongoing monitoring is necessary to determine if a change in visitor use management on the Chattooga River is needed, according to the decision. The river is currently managed with the Sumter National Forest of South Carolina and the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest of Georgia.