Meadows listens to concerns of wilderness advocates
In anticipation of the new Forest Service plan for Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests, which is nearing completion, Congressman Mark Meadows, R-Cashiers, has been taking time to listen to stakeholder opinions on wilderness designation.
Following meetings with county commissioners of several western counties who oppose additional wilderness designations, Meadows came to Haywood to the Historic Courthouse last week to meet with advocates who are for wilderness designation.
“I think there is time and space to find a consensus for a plan that could appease us all,” said Bill Hodge, executive director of the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards as he addressed the gathering of interested parties who had come to share their opinions on an upcoming forest plan revision with Meadows.
“I want to applaud you today for coming here and listening,” Hodge said to Meadows.
For Meadows, it was the third such meeting, however, the first two were with western county leaders and stakeholders who are concerned about the potential for additional wilderness area designations in the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests.
At the request of Hodge, Meadows agreed to meet with stakeholders who are in favor of wilderness designations, arguing that it is only fair that their voices be heard by the congressman, whose support would be needed to get any potential wilderness designations through Congress.
The upcoming forest plan revision, the first in over a decade for this region, has been controversial as those in favor of more wilderness designated land and those opposed have worked to find common ground.
County commissioners in several western counties, including Haywood, have passed resolutions opposed to adding any additional acreage to designated wilderness areas, citing concerns over safety, maintenance of existing roads and trails and issues of land use, such as logging or mineral rights.
The meeting last week was intended to be a private, informal listening session for those whose voices had not yet been heard by the congressman.
Representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, including Allen Nicholas, forest supervisor of North Carolina, representatives of a variety of conservation groups including the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Mountain True, the Chattooga Conservancy, American Whitewater, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Nantahala Hiking Club were on hand to share their thoughts.
Olga Pader, recent past president of the Nantahala Hiking Club, is a diminutive woman who speaks in a quiet voice, but when she stood to share her personal thoughts on wilderness land, the room fell silent to hear her moving words.
“Because of our society’s misguided views of human progress and alienation from the natural world, we engage in a convoluted and contentious process to set aside an insignificant number of acres as wilderness when seen in the large scheme of available land and human existence. I hope and pray that the Forest Service lives up to its name in truly serving the forest, not human shortsighted desires and goals. Let‘s value the land for itself, respecting it as the handiwork of creation, honoring all its creatures from the mightiest mountain to the tiniest bug, protecting it from the seemingly unstoppable clearing of every reachable inch, allowing nature to continue its wise path without our interference, becoming humble enough to realize that we are a small part of something much larger than each one of us or of all humans together — those are the reasons for supporting the designation of wilderness areas.”
Meadows had been under the impression that stakeholders on both sides of the issues were having tremendous difficulty finding common ground, however, several speakers dispelled that concern, saying that in previous meetings both sides were actually quite close in opinion on several key issues.
“I think the resolutions [issued by county leaders] unfairly represent and polarize the people who use and enjoy these spaces,” said Nicholas.
“We are here today to help bring about a plan that encompasses as many desires for these spaces as possible. My goal is to listen to your thoughts, take them back and try to incorporate them into this plan. A healthy forest is what this is all about,” he said.
One by one, representatives from the various factions stood to share their perspectives.
Kevin Colburn, national stewardship director of American Whitewater, argued that wilderness designation protects land vital to recreational uses and is an asset in the eastern part of the country especially.
“Wilderness areas are a unique tourism opportunity, drawing people to this region. If they are not protected, they will be gone,” he said.
Meadows responded by saying that the No. 1 call his office receives regarding the forest service is complaints about lack of access to existing roads that have been gated due to lack of funding for maintenance.
“If we don’t have enough funding to maintain those areas now, how will we be able to add more [land]?” he asked.
Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest span 1.1 million acres in Western North Carolina, however, only about 6 percent of it is comprised of wilderness areas, unlike in the west, where closer to 20 percent is the norm.
Wilderness advocates argue that bringing the percentage of land designated as wilderness a little closer to the national average will still leave plenty of room for other uses like hunting.
“From a preservation standpoint, the only danger is from new roads, right?” Meadows queried the gathering.
Many looked up in surprise, vigorously shaking their heads ‘no.’
“To a hunter who can’t get there, it might as well be wilderness,” Meadows continued, adding that closing off access to forested areas popular with hunters creates de-facto wilderness areas.
“The greatest threat facing the human race right now is climate change. How we handle wilderness areas can greatly impact that,” said Buzz Williams of the Chattooga Conservancy.
Williams went on to argue that humans aren’t the only ones to use the land. Nature itself has as much right to it as we as humans do.
Sam Evans of the Southern Environmental Law Center addressed the perception that wilderness designation ‘locks up’ land.
“Wilderness is all around us, but most of it is not protected though. There is a common misconception that wilderness advocates don’t want the land touched at all. We’re not asking to lock up the land or to take away access, just to preserve it in as close to its natural state as possible,” he said.
Hodge made the point that millions of people every year experience wilderness land without ever setting foot in it.
“If you drive the Parkway and look out over stunning vistas, much of what you are seeing is wilderness designated land. If it were not protected years ago, that land would look vastly different today,” he said.
Bringing the discussion full circle, Josh Kelly, a public lands biologist with Mountain True, returned to the fact that there is common ground in supporting a multi-use plan for the forest.
“There is a centrist critical mass behind a multi-use forest plan. We do not claim to speak for the public at large, but for us it’s not about a percentage of land, but about protecting those special places that are unique to this region,” he said.
Bill Van Horn of The Wilderness Society urged Meadows to consider erring on the side of preservation.
“It may be another 15 to 25 years before the forest plan is revisited again. If we don’t get it right and preserve what is important, in another 15 to 20 years it may be too late,” he said.
Adding to Van Horn’s comments about protecting the land for future generations, Hodge said, “I have say there’s an element still missing in all these talks and that’s the voice of the future stakeholders. There’s no one under 30 and no one of color represented in these meetings and that has to change,” he said.
Not all of the potential wilderness areas under consideration are as contentious as those in Nantahala and Pisgah though.
In Big Ivy, stakeholders on both sides of the debate have worked together to develop a multi-use plan that everyone can get behind, setting an example for other areas.
Will Harlan, editor-in-chief of Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine, attended representing Friends of Big Ivy. He called the congressman to the table, asking him if he would go to bat for the wilderness area recommendations that are strongly supported, such as Big Ivy.
Not willing to commit to absolute support, Meadows said, “I’m willing to look at them on a case by case basis, but that’s why we’re relying on county commissioners to help inform us.”
Evans addressed the congressman’s comments saying, “ We are trying to get to a place of mutual support as stakeholders and we need your help to do it.”
Meadows said, “ I’m willing to invest the political capital to find a plan that works. We have a unique opportunity to do a Forest Service plan that sets a model for the United States. I’m willing to look at it in a real way with real stakeholders. This is the kind of input that is needed to find common ground.”
The Forest Service will continue to accept public input on the plan as it progresses. More information about the plan and how to submit input can be found at http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/nfsnc/home/?cid=stelprdb5397660