A new management plan for the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests will govern the future of more than 1 million acres of forest in western North Carolina. These public lands are among the most important places for birds in the hemisphere and play a central role in the lives of North Carolinians across the region.
As the June 29 public comment deadline for the plan approaches, Audubon and our partners at the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership have finalized recommendations that will protect birds and the places they need, while finding win-win management solutions that benefit birds and support everyone who loves and depends on the forest.
Audubon is submitting detailed comments to the Forest Service, as well as signing on to the full recommendations supported by the Partnership. We’ll post them here as soon as they are available.
Below we have highlighted and expounded on recommendations from the Partnership that most impact birds.
Speak up for birds today! Use this analysis to submit your own comments to the Forest Service through our action alert here.
For more background, watch our Forest Plan Webinar, with Director of Conservation Curtis Smalling.
Old Growth Forest
The Nantahala and Pisgah forests include old growth forest as well as areas that will be old growth in the future. These forests are rare across the landscape and provide critical habitat for birds that thrive in dense interior forests, species like Veery, Broad-winged Hawk, and Blackburnian Warbler. Not all of these places are currently protected from active management that degrades their old growth condition, such as timber harvesting. Recommendation:
- Existing old growth forests should be protected in designated old growth networks.
- Places that are projected to become old growth forest in the future—backcountry areas and conservation lands like Mountain Treasure Areas, for example—should be added to designated old growth networks as well.
State Natural Areas
The North Carolina Natural Heritage Program has identified habitats across the forests that hold our state’s best examples of unique ecosystems, biodiversity hotspots, and rare plant and animal communities. Recommendation:
- Timber production shouldn’t be permitted in these designated natural areas.
- These designated natural areas should be managed only to maintain their rare or exemplary ecological values.
Unroaded Areas, or Wilderness Inventory Areas
Wilderness Inventory Areas are some of the wildest and most remote places within the Nantahala and Pisgah forests. One of the defining characteristics of these places is that they have very few roads, or none at all. But many of these places could still see active management, such as timber harvesting.
These unprotected wild places represent our best opportunity to maintain large, intact forests in perpetuity, places where natural processes help ensure birds like Ovenbird and Blue-headed Vireo survive and thrive long into the future. This is especially important in the face of habitat fragmentation and forest loss on private lands in the region. Recommendation:
- All Wilderness Inventory Areas should be managed to maintain or restore their wildland values and should be off limits for construction of utilities, highways, and energy development.
There’s no stronger land protection classification in the U.S. than official Wilderness designation. For rivers, the equivalent designation is Wild and Scenic. The protections of Wilderness Areas and Wild and Scenic Rivers allow natural processes to take place on the landscape and protect the birds that depend on them.
In the face of the many pressures on our forests, Audubon and our partners are advocating for Wilderness and Wild and Scenic designation for the landscapes and rivers listed below. All told, these recommendations, along with existing Wilderness Areas, only account for about 175,000 acres of the total forest, or 17 percent of Forest Service land. Recommendation:
- The following areas should be recommended for Wilderness or National Scenic Area designation: Craggy/Big Ivy (Wilderness and National Scenic Area), Overflow, Black Mountains, Mackey Mountain, Joyce Kilmer Extensions (excluding Yellowhammer), Southern Nantahala Extensions, Ellicott Rock Extension, Shining Rock Extensions, Harper Creek, Lost Cove, Snowbird, Tusquitee, Unicoi & Cantrell Top, and Middle Prong Extension.
- The following rivers should be included as Eligible Wild and Scenic Rivers: North Fork of the French Broad, Panthertown Creek, Greenland Creek, the East Fork of the Tuckasegee, the East and West Forks of Overflow Creek, and nine additional miles of Fires Creek. In addition, Big Laurel Creek and the West Fork of the Pigeon should be reclassified as “scenic” rather than “recreational” streams, and Overflow Creek, Thompson River, and Whitewater River should be reclassified as “wild” rather than “scenic.”
Recreation and Trails
North Carolina’s national forests have enough space to support all kinds of people and activities, from bird watching to mountain biking. As population growth continues to expand in areas around our forests, these public lands have only become more important and popular for recreation.
This can put pressure on birds and the places they need, but it also presents new opportunities and constituents for conservation. Our recommendation:
- The natural setting and biodiversity of the forests will always be the biggest draw for visitors and should be protected to the greatest degree possible.
- The plan should continue to support conservation and protection of Peregrine Falcons through monitoring, seasonal closure of select rock faces, and collaboration with the climbing and outdoor recreation community.
Ecological restoration can help breathe new life into degraded sections of the forest. Restoration work can help improve biodiversity, water quality, and resilience to climate change. Our recommendation:
- Include Ecological Interest Areas in the plan. These are areas of high ecological value identified as potentially benefiting from restoration work.
- Include a list of specific priorities for ecological restoration and ensure that they are actually included in projects when opportunities are present.
As Audubon's 2019 Survival by Degrees Report shows, climate change and the immediate threats associated with those changes (extreme rain events, spring heat, etc.) pose an existential threat to birds.
The large, intact forests of western North Carolina create a natural system more resilient to these threats, and management and restoration should protect that function rather than degrade it. Our recommendation:
- The plan must require that all infrastructure (e.g. stream crossings and culverts) be designed and maintained to accommodate increased storm intensity and frequency.
- The Forest Service should monitor how phenomena like droughts and fires affect the forest and commit to mitigating their impacts if we begin to see more impacts from these threats.
- New or reconstructed stream crossings under roads must provide passage for fish and other aquatic organisms.
- Unroaded areas should be protected to provide intact, connected forests.
- The Forest Service should provide a full accounting of the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests’ role in sequestering and storing carbon.
Our public forests have enough space and natural abundance to accommodate all of the people who enjoy them. For those who make a living on the forests, we can find solutions that support livelihoods and increase forest health by being strategic about where we direct restoration work.
But win-win solutions only happen with collaboration, compromise, accurate and thorough monitoring, and a willingness to try approaches that advance the health of the forests as a whole. Therefore:
- To achieve win-win solutions, the plan itself must assure that conservation values and forest health are upheld. It is not enough to promise that these values will be considered at the project level.
- Urge the Forest Service to adopt the full recommendations of the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership. We will add a link to the full recommendations when they are available.
Make your voice heard on the plan today! Comment here.
Watch our Forest Plan Webinar here, with Director of Conservation Curtis Smalling.