News | March 20, 2023

Forest Service fails to fix glaring flaws in Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan

The newly published management plan for North Carolina’s Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests ignores public feedback, recklessly puts important ecosystems at risk, and will cause significantly higher carbon emissions than the previous plan. 

Watch the video now.

Senior Attorney Sam Evans, leader of SELC’s National Forests and Parks Program, breaks down forest planning.

The Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan lays out the long-term vision for these two magnificent forests in western North Carolina. Among other things, the document outlines where activities like logging and roadbuilding will be prioritized. The U.S. Forest Service has been working on this updated plan for more than a decade, and SELC and other conservation groups have been involved at every step of the process.

The Forest Service had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to map out a better future for these two incredible forests, but this is instead a step backwards.

Sam Evans, Leader of SELC’s National Forests and Parks Program

Unfortunately, the Forest Service missed an opportunity to lead the way on broadly supported biodiversity and climate-focused management and instead doubled down on outdated, reckless logging practices. The plan aims to eventually increase the amount of annual logging in these forests by nearly 400 percent and leaves more than 100,000 acres of old-growth forests, rare species habitat, and roadless backcountry open to harmful logging practices.  

“The plan not only dramatically expands where and how much logging will happen, but it puts the wildlife habitats, backcountry areas, and old growth areas that make the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests special on the chopping block,” says Senior Attorney Sam Evans, who leads SELC’s National Forests and Parks Program. “The Forest Service had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to map out a better future for these two incredible forests, but this is instead a step backwards.”

Ignoring public concerns

The Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests are among the most popular public lands in the country. (©Stephanie Gross)

The Forest Service’s final version of the plan was first published in 2022 and was met with massive pushback. The plan received more than 14,000 objections from local stakeholders, forest visitors, and conservation organizations – including SELC. Forest Service leaders decided to ignore those thousands of comments and instead plow ahead with its flawed plan.  

The record-setting public engagement against the Forest Plan exemplifies the connection that visitors and nearby communities have to the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests. These forests are among the most popular public lands in the country and are major drivers of local economies in Western North Carolina. Tourists come from all over to enjoy the forests and visit local shops, restaurants, and breweries. Visitors flock here for solitude, renewal, and views of beautiful forests – not clear cuts and logging trucks. However, this plan threatens many beloved backcountry areas like Daniel Ridge, Chunky Gal Mountain, and Tellico Bald with destructive logging.  

Defying federal orders 

Because of the long history of clear cutting, there are few remaining tracts of old-growth forest in the Southern Appalachians. Old-growth forests provide irreplaceable wildlife habitats and hold massive amounts of carbon. When they are logged, most of the carbon they store is released into the air where it accelerates climate change. Keeping old-growth tracts standing is a cost-effective and straightforward climate change solution.  

An old growth yellow poplar in the Nantahala National Forest. (©Bill Lea)

Despite these incredible benefits, the final version of the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan allows logging in some of the last remaining old-growth forests in the Southern Appalachians. Not only has the Forest Service refused to protect these areas, the agency now says it won’t even require local officials to evaluate if forests qualify as old growth before logging them. This extreme stance not only violates current Forest Service guidelines, it undermines our nation’s climate and conservation goals.  

Last year U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order calling on federal agencies – including the Forest Service – to “conserve America’s mature and old-growth forests on federal lands,” writing that these forests are “critical to the health, prosperity, and resilience of our communities.” This built on the administration’s prior executive order promising to “lead the Nation’s effort to combat the climate crisis by example.” 

Despite these clear directives, the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan focuses logging in some of the most carbon-dense federally-owned forests and manages these landscapes in a way that will worsen the impacts of climate change. Federal leaders should act to ensure the Forest Service supports the Biden administration’s goals instead of working against them. 

Pristine waterways at risk 

Upper Catabwa Falls.

The Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests provide clean, reliable drinking water to communities throughout North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. But instead of protecting these important waterways, the plan will sharply increase roadbuilding in 100,000 acres of backcountry areas, causing sediment and runoff to degrade nearby streams and rivers.   

Additionally, this plan fails to balance the huge increases in logging and roadbuilding with commonsense mitigation measures like road maintenance, restrictions on ground disturbance in ephemeral streambeds and on steep slopes, and watershed improvements. Instead, it wrongly assumes that the same inadequate mitigation that has not been able to protect water resources in the past will be sufficient. 

The failure to protect these waterways from pollution puts drinking water quality for downstream communities at risk and imperils critical aquatic habitats, including for rare species like hellbenders and popular sport fish like brook trout.  

Concludes Senior Attorney Evans, “We will continue to oppose this forest plan, and we will certainly oppose any project that will harm old growth, rare species, and backcountry areas.”