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Outdoors Commissioners say ‘no more wilderness’

Mayor Bob Scott signed a proclamation declaring Sept. 3, 2014, as Wilderness Act Celebration Day to mark the 50th anniversary of the act. The Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Sept. 3, 1964. The Wilderness Act created the National Wilderness Preservation System, which protects nearly 110 million acres of wilderness areas in the United States. The proclamation states that the Town of Franklin and its people have pledged to protect and preserve the integrity of the Southern Nantahala Wilderness. According to wilderness.org, 68,000 acres in the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest are permanently protected. While Franklin supports the wilderness already designated, county commissioners have signed a resolution opposes any further wilderness designation in the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest.Resolution being submitted to reflect opposition.

From corner to corner, 46 percent of Macon County is covered by the Nantahala National Forest. With nearly half of the county being national forest land, how that land can be utilized is closely restricted by the United States Department of Agriculture and the department is currently revising a plan to further restrict access to national forest (NF) land.

The United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service is currently in the process of revising the 1987 Land and Resource Management Plan under which the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests are managed. The revision highlights several changes on utilization of the NF lands including the additional designation of wilderness areas within the forests.

By classifying portions of the forest as wilderness areas or scenery, timber management is prohibited, which can be devastating to the local economy.

The plan identifies two areas of Macon County, both larger than 5,000 acres, subject to change under the revision. These two areas include NF land on the backside of the ridge above Nantahala Lake from Tellico Gap to Burningtown Gap and Burningtown Gap South toward Wayah Gap.

“I believe the plan is strongly biased toward mature forest and scenery with little consideration for wildlife or timber cutting jobs,” said local resident Tim Gray during July’s meeting of the Macon County Board of Commissioners meeting. “It is well recognized among the wildlife agency and wildlife conservation 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.”

Gray came with support from Macon County’s representative in the United States Congress, Congressman Mark Meadows.

“As the U.S. Forest Service works to complete its revision of the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest plans, I strongly urge you to consider the vital role that timber cutting, active forest management and hunting and fishing activities play in maintaining healthy forest and strong local economies,” reads a letter from Meadows.

Meadows cited the importance of the NF lands to the local economy. “The Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests are an important part of Western North Carolina’s heritage and key drivers of economic growth in the region,” said Meadows in his letter. “With that in mind, I respectfully urge you to consider a balanced land management plan that incorporates the needs of all relevant stakeholders, inducing the timber industry and hunting and fishing groups.”

Gray informed commissioners that by designating additional wilderness areas in Macon County, jobs associated with the timber industry and the production of goods resulting from timber management stand to suffer. In addition to employment levels, Gray explained that wildlife tends to flourish better in new growth areas of the forests rather than old growth. So forest land that has been cut as part of the timber management plan sees a greater ecosystem of natural wildlife. By designating additional areas as wilderness areas, the total wilderness consideration in the Nantahala National Forest will reach 70 percent and could stand to potentially harm local wildlife.

Meadows explained that the NPNF plan for timber management in available areas has significant been ignored in provisos years. Out of the 20 percent of land identified as being eligible for timber management and harvesting, only 1 percent has been reached in the last 10 years. “Less timber cutting not only means fewer jobs, it also means fewer new growth areas, which are key to a robust wildlife and forest development,” reads Congressman Meadows letter.

With Gov. Pat McCrory’s recent signature on a new law that will allow fracking in North Carolina, County Manager Derek Roland and the board of commissioners wanted to ensure the resolution and the revisions are separate considerations aside from any issue dealing with fracking. “I have been in contact with the NCACC [North Carolina Association of County Commissioners] to see if this resolution in any way relates to 'fracking,' said Roland. “ After my first conversation with NCACC representatives, they are under the impression that the two are unrelated.”

With confidence that the resolution was unrelated to the issue, the Macon County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to pass the resolution and send it to lawmakers to show Macon County’s opposition of the additional designation of wilderness areas in the Nantahala National Forest.

On behalf of the county, Gray took the resolution to a meeting that was held in Asheville last Thursday designed to offer information and to give the public an opportunity to share thoughts and concerns on the issue. Additional meetings are planned throughout the year.


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