Critics attack the final management plan for the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests, arguing it will lead to overharvesting. Forest managers point out the plan does the difficult work of balancing multiple competing demands. 

The recent release of the final Nantahala and Pisgah Forest Plan has (unsurprisingly) drawn criticisms from a group of environmental special interests. Their attacks focus on frightening claims like “the new plan will increase logging by as much as 400% without necessary protections.” 

However, these critiques typically focus on unrealistic worst-case scenarios and overstate potential environmental risks. They hype concerns that regulatory oversight of the forests have been stripped away, allowing unregulated timber harvesting. Apart from their clear errors, these critiques miss the fact that real forests — healthy forests — contain a balanced mix of young, mature, and old-growth areas. That balance is essential as “young…and open forest…are currently underrepresented on the landscape,” according to James Melonas, state supervisor of North Carolina’s National Forests. 

While the critiques can make for exciting headlines, preservationist mindsets also often ignore legislated requirements that national forests be managed for multiple uses. They eschew collaborative, multistakeholder planning efforts, demanding ever-increasing amounts of an imaginary and unscientific state of pristine and static old growth. But the just-released report, “First in Forestry,” published by the John Locke Foundation and Michigan’s Mackinac Center, describes the problems associated with allowing these preservationist attitudes to derail collaborative forest planning processes. 

The report explains that North Carolina’s national forests have been set aside for everyone in the state. These forests were always meant to be managed for a variety of uses and users: wilderness preservation, wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, water management, traditional and tribal uses, as well as other sustainable uses, including harvesting. Recognizing the value of these multiple uses, the new Nantahala/Pisgah management plan “specifically emphasizes the ways people use the forest and the places that are important to them,” say U.S. Forest Service representatives. 

“First in Forestry” describes how proper management of public forests necessarily includes “ongoing harvests of forest products for lumber and manufactured wood products; creative silviculture prescriptions that target a mix of age classes and diverse stand structures; reintroducing prescribed fire on a regular basis; and active spacing and thinning forests to reduce the threats of wildfire, disease, or infestation.” At the same time, other equally valuable uses are required as well: “conservation, outdoor recreation, hunting and fishing, and providing various ecosystem services such as water purification, air quality improvements, and wildlife habitat.”  

The people-matter-too emphasis in this innovative plan was built out of hard-won scientific knowledge first developed by previous generations of North Carolina’s foresters and land managers. “First in Forestry” relates how the state’s early foresters first applied scientific and collaborative management techniques to restore the very lands that are today managed as the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests. 

These early foresters learned, and then taught us, that actively managed forests were healthy and viable forests. In contrast, as “First in Forestry” explains, the push to lock up public lands in untouched wilderness preserves tends to force people out, harms local economies, and often leads to older, decadent areas that suffer from disease, forest pests, and wildfire. 

“First in Forestry” considers several examples of the values represented by North Carolina’s national forests: the role of forests in the state economy and the increasing levels of both public and private forest cover across the state. The report describes how the federal government can act as a good neighbor to state and private landowners. It also describes the unique challenges faced by the state’s western counties that contain high percentages of federal land. The report also discusses the role of active forest management, wildfires, and prescribed fires on wildlife habitats and populations. 

With its focus on multiple uses and human activity in the forest, the updated Nantahala and Pisgah Forest Management Plan injects a breath of fresh air into the discussion. It is a logical step away from harmful preservationist views and a step toward promoting viability, health, and diversity in North Carolina’s forested areas.  

As “First in Forestry” explains, by cooperating with the many stakeholders with interests in the proper management of North Carolina’s national forests, this new management plan is establishing the state as “a positive example for what active and collaborative forest management should look like.”