In Western North Carolina’s Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest, a committed group of outdoor recreation enthusiasts, conservationists, hunting and fishing groups, forest product businesses and forest ecology advocates has been working closely with the U. S. Forest Service (USFS) for years to update the agency’s regional forest management plan.

But the Nantahala Pisgah Forest Partnership is now formally objecting to the plan the agency issued earlier this year, saying that the plan will lead to “more conflict and less collaboration” in several categories. 

“One of our main objections is that the plan doesn’t abide by the collaborative goals we set for progress toward ecological, social, and economic sustainability,” said Hugh Irwin, a Partnership participant and Landscape Conservation Planner for The Wilderness Society, in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “This group has been working together for years to avoid potential conflicts between harvest, old-growth, recreational goals, the needs of wildlife, and carbon storage in forests.” 

The USFS plan expands timber harvest into over 100,000 acres of known old-growth, state-recognized Natural Heritage Natural Areas, and largely undeveloped, inaccessible wilderness tracts, Irwin and other conservationists stated in official comments on the plan as part of a formal objection.

The Partnership’s alternative, which included consensus agreement from timber harvesters and loggers, would have protected those same areas from logging and development. 

In many cases, these forest collaboratives like the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership have successfully prevented potential conflicts in rural communities between the timber industry, environmental advocates, public land employees, and a growing rural outdoor recreation economy. 

Irwin said that input into the planning process generated more than 14,000 public comments, among the largest response rates ever for a forest management issue in the Eastern U.S. “The Nantahala-Pisgah is at the heart of the Southern Appalachians in a lot of ways. It’s the center of the Southern Blue Ridge area of the region. It represents some of the most consolidated areas of National Forest and ownership in the East, and is also adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, another center of public lands and biodiversity,” Irwin said, explaining why so many citizens commented on the plan. 

Among the most critical objections to the agency’s plan is the role of old-growth forests in storing carbon as a means of climate change mitigation. “There is an explicit link between old-growth and carbon storage, between old-growth and adapting to climate change. One of the major ways we have carbon stored on the landscape is through our forests. When you do scientific carbon modeling, it’s obvious that there are many, many times more carbon stored in mature and old-growth forests than there are in young forest,” Irwin said.

Old-growth forest protection and management issues on federal lands are likely to see increasing attention in the coming months. On Earth Day, President Biden issued an Executive Order on Strengthening the Nation’s Forests, Communities, and Local Economies, committing to conserve and restore forests, including old growth forests, their assessment and cataloging, and the analysis of mature and old-growth forest contributions to climate change protections.

Old-growth forest advocates largely cheered the White House order and attention to the issue. 

“Just to hear the words ‘old-growth forests’ come out of the mouth of the President of the United States is a big thrill for us,” said Dr. Joan Maloof, Executive Director and Founder of the Old Growth Forest Network, in an email to Daily Yonder.

“Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is an important step in what we hope will be an eventual moratorium on any logging of old-growth forests from our federal forests. With their large trees, complex biodiversity, and rich soils, these are the most crucial forests for carbon storage and they should be left untouched by the impacts of logging.”

OGFN, along with 135 climate and natural resource experts, recently sent a letter making the case for federal old-growth forest protections. “There are so many reasons to protect our nation’s oldest forests, from climate to biodiversity to beauty, we have been saying this for years, and we are thrilled to be making political progress toward this. It is a great Earth Day to celebrate, indeed,” Maloof said.

Some climate action advocates were not pleased with Biden’s Earth Day actions. 

“The Administration had a real opportunity to show leadership on Earth Day this year and failed miserably,” said Jim Walsh, Policy Director of Food and Water Watch. “We will never offset our fossil fuel usage by planting more trees. What we need to do is actually get to the root of the problem, and the major sources of emissions are coming from our energy and transportation systems. We’ve got to stop burning fossil fuels.” 

Walsh added that additional reductions in climate emissions can be had in the agricultural sector. “Factory farming is continuing to grow and thrive, producing significant amounts of greenhouse gases through giant livestock operations and massive fertilizer usage. We simply cannot phase out fossil fuels or cut agricultural pollution while the administration continues to pump billions of dollars in subsidies [to fossil fuels and industrial agriculture]. . . while ignoring the real work that needs to be done to address the climate crisis,” Walsh said. 

Back in North Carolina, Hugh Irwin hopes that the renewed attention to old-growth forest issues at the federal level can help to both address climate change and support needed management improvements to the local Nantahala-Pisgah forest region.  

“I’m really excited about the President’s Order,” Irwin said. “This is the most obvious climate mitigation we should be doing in our public forests—saving the existing old-growth, but also preserving the existing forests that are in great shape that could become old growth in the future.” 

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