Macon County opposes Forest Service plan to increase ‘Wilderness Areas’



At Tuesday’s monthly meeting of the Macon County Board of County Commissioners, county officials voted unanimously to adopt a resolution opposing the designation of additional wilderness areas within the Nantahala National Forest in Macon County. Such action sends a clear message to Congress that Macon County does not support additional wilderness designations which will ultimately eliminate timber management in these areas.

Tim Gray came before the board to rally the support of commissioners to adopt a resolution expressing Macon County’s opposition for further wilderness designations. Gray represented the conservation group, the Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS), an organization that supports healthy forests, abundant wildlife and sporting traditions. Gray presented two letters to the board, a letter from Linda D. Ordiway, PhD and Regional Biologist with the RGS Society, as well as a letter from Congressman Mark Meadows both opposing the further designation of new wilderness areas.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service is revising the 1987 Land and Resources Management Plan, a plan that was also revised in 1994. This land and resources plan manages the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests, including the forests of Macon County. As a part of this plan’s revision, the Forest Service is in the process of identifying additional areas to be included as designated areas or scenery areas in western North Carolina. As a part of the plan, the Forest Service not only can designate land as wilderness areas, they also can designate land located anywhere as scenery areas. Both designations would prohibit timber management in these areas.

The NPNF plan covers 1,044,393 acres of land located in 18 counties in western North Carolina. According to Gray of that total approximately half of this land (527,697 acres) is presently off limits for timber management. Gray told commissioners that timber cutting is allowed in 20 percent of this acreage designated to be cut over a 20 year period, with only two percent actually harvested. Gray stated if the new plan passes, the Forest Service will add an additional 19 percent of forest land to the existing designated and scenery areas, bringing the total percentage of restricted land to 70 percent, creating wilderness which will never be touched or even seen by residents or tourists.

Forty-six percent of Macon County is in national forest lands. Two areas in Macon County, each larger than 5,000 acres, are included in the proposed plan. These two areas include forest land on the backside of the ridge above Nantahala Lake from Tellico Gap to Burningtown Gap and Burningtown Gap South toward Wayah Gap.

Gray told commissioners hunters and conservationists can really see a difference in what has happened in the wildlife population in recent years due to the decrease in timber cutting. He stated the plan’s proposal to designate additional areas and scenery areas will further prohibit timber management and continue to have a significant impact on wildlife, including many endangered species.

“I believe the plan is strongly biased toward mature forest and scenery with little consideration for wildlife or timber cutting jobs,” said Gray. “It is well recognized among the wildlife agency and wildlife conservations organizations that the regrowth of timber cut areas are the most productive for wildlife maintenance. This is a rare situation where utilization of the forest industry and wildlife both benefit from the efforts of timber cutting,” he added.

“Less timber cutting not only means fewer jobs, it also means fewer new growth areas, which are key to robust wildlife and forest development, “ said Congressman Mark Meadows in his letter to Congress. “In addition to timber cutting, hunting and fishing are directly affected by Forest Service planning and play an important economic and cultural role in the communities in and around the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests.”

“It’s about balance,” said County Commissioner Chairman Kevin Corbin. “We all are in agreement that we are environmentalists. I know I am; I want clean air, clean water and plenty of beautiful trees to look at, but it’s all about balance.”

With the commissioners’ approval of the resolution, Macon County joins Graham and Cherokee counties who have also approved similar resolutions asking the Forest Service to reconsider the plan to increase designated wilderness and scenery areas in the forests of western North Carolina. No action on the part of commissioners will be taken by the adoption of the resolution; however, it will serve as a voice for Macon County expressing its opinion to not designate additional forest land and further limit timber harvesting.