ASHEVILLE — Potential adjustments to permit periods for overnight campers in the Linville Gorge are one of many recommendations made in a long-awaited draft plan for the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest that was released on Feb. 7.
“The proposed forest plan will provide strategic guidance for land and resource management on the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests for the next 15 years or more,” a Feb. 3 letter from forest Supervisor Allen Nicholas explained. “The plan recognizes the multiple uses of national forests, including recreation, timber, water, wilderness and wildlife habitat.”
According to Michelle Aldridge, team lead for the forest plan revision, the draft plan released is “significantly different” from the plan shared in 2017 due to incorporating public feedback. Meetings were held starting in 2013 across the western half of North Carolina with interested groups.
The draft plan divides the one-million-acre Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest into several management areas. Locally, the Eastern Escarpment area contains 139,513 acres of Forest Service land in Avery, Burke, Caldwell, McDowell and Watauga counties.
“In the region, adventure seekers enjoy the Brown Mountain off-highway vehicle trails; mountain biking along the Wilson Creek corridor; rock climbing in the Linville Gorge or Lost Cove Cliffs; hiking over rocky terrain on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail; backpacking in roadless settings; or backcountry fishing for trout and smallmouth bass,” the Eastern Escarpment description states. “Wilson Creek and Harper Creek are popular with creek boaters, especially when water flows are high. Bear, deer and turkey hunting is popular in the geographic area, especially at Forest Service Road 106, Dobson Knob, and Roses Creek. The area includes Pisgah game lands where the Forest Service coordinates with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.”
Major economic drivers for the Eastern Escarpment area include manufacturing, health care, construction, agriculture, wood products and tourism, the draft plan states.
“In addition to providing a wide variety of opportunities for nature-based recreation, National Forest System lands provide support for local economies, as it is used by many outfitters and guides, including summer camps, for multiple recreational and educational purposes. Additionally, commercial gathering of forest products such as Galax and shrubbery contributes to local economies.”
The Eastern Escarpment area section of the full master plan has 28 specific recommendations, many of which are part of full-forest recommendations, plus more specific action plans listed throughout the various documents.
One of the recommendations for the Linville Gorge would be to “periodically review effectiveness of the permit system in maintaining opportunities for solitude and minimizing wilderness resource impacts from camping.”
“If needed, adjust seasons or days when overnight permits are required, or modify implementation methods, required entry points, etc. to more effectively preserve or enhance wilderness values,” the management approaches section of the plan states.
Currently, a free camping permit is required on weekends and holidays May through October in the Linville Gorge, with group sizes limited to 10 and each visitor or group only receiving one weekend permit per month, with stays limited to three consecutive days and two nights.
For the Linville Gorge Wilderness, the draft plan also emphasizes treatment of non-native invasive species and reducing or eliminating impacts to species such as Heller’s Blazing Star and mountain golden heather.
To sustain a healthy ecosystem, the draft plan include emphasizing restoration in fire-adapted ecological communities, maintaining scattered islands of Carolina hemlock forests within certain areas such as Dobson Knob at the Linville Gorge.
Johns River is specifically mentioned as an area where watershed conditions can be improved, including mitigating effects of off-highway vehicle use.
The draft plan emphasizes meeting increasing demands for sustainable mountain biking, horseback riding and popular rock climbing area opportunities, specifically in the the Eastern Escarpment area regions in Caldwell and Burke counties.
Preserving, protecting and restoring locations with “significant connections” to Catawba history and identity is another action plan.
Wilson Creek is identified as an area that needs attention to reduce erosion and sedimentation in order to restore travel routes for fish and other aquatic creatures.
Other flora and fauna recommendations include prohibiting the trampling of the Hudsonia montana flower within closure areas of the Linville Gorge as well as prohibiting rock climbing, rappelling, hang gliding, use of drones and other nest-disturbing activities in the vicinity of active peregrine falcon nesting sites from Jan. 15 to Aug. 15, and expanding the range of the brook floater.
“Driving for pleasure and scenery viewing is often a multi-generational activity in the region with waterfall trails, overlooks and picnic areas bringing visitors deeper into the forest,” part of the Eastern Escarpment description says.
Having an integrated response to managing fire in and around the urban areas surrounding the Linville Gorge is also emphasized, noting that the area sees more lightning strikes than other parts of the forest.
Another local region highlighted in the draft plan is the Bald Mountain Geographic Area, which extends from western Avery County down the Tennessee border to Haywood County. The region includes sections of the Appalachian Trail and the Overmountain Victory Trail and is characterized as being a high-mountain grassy area with many sections more than a mile above sea level.
Natural management recommendations include improving habitats for open area-associated species such as the golden-winged warbler, ruffed grouse, elk and other rare plant communities.
Emphasizing visitor safety at Elk River Falls in Avery County is listed. Visitor deaths from travelers who either leap off the falls or get caught in the undertow after heavy rainstorms have occurred multiple times in recent years.
Plan management for the Appalachian Trail, Overmountain Victory Trail and Roan Mountain, all of which partially run through Avery County, will have plan direction located in separate management areas, according to the land management plan.
The draft plan estimates that the potential for commercial timber operations varies between 235,000 and 265,000 acres between different alternatives, but only between 110,000 and 113,000 acres would be available if current levels of road construction are maintained. Between 72,000 and 200,000 acres are estimated as needing prescribed burns to help with vegetation management.
The 90-day public comment period was to begin Feb. 14. A link to the online public comment form, as well as the draft plans, is available online by clicking to www.fs.usda.gov/goto/nfsnc/nprevision. The formal comment period ends May 14, 2020.
“Public comments are most helpful when they include detailed information about specific places and uses of the forest,” the National Forests in N.C. letter states.
Public meetings will be held throughout March in Asheville, Morganton, Brevard, Brasstown, Mars Hill and Franklin and webinars are planned for late February and early March, Nicholas said in his Feb. 7 statement. The Morganton event is scheduled from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 10, at the Foothills Conference Center, located at 2128 S. Sterling St.
Currently, the plan is slated to be finalized by summer 2021.