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Conservation organizations to sue U.S. Forest Service over Nantahala Pisgah Forest Plan

Lilly Knoepp
Blue Ridge Public Radio

A collaboration of conservation organizations announced that they will be suing the U.S. Forest Service over the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan.

The plan, which was released in February 2023 after a 10-year planning process, outlined the management of more than a million acres of national forest in Western North Carolina for at least the next decade.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of MountainTrue, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, and Center for Biological Diversity, released a notice of their intent to sue on Wednesday. The group says the plan violates the Endangered Species Act.

The suit alleges the Forest Service used inaccurate and incomplete information during the planning process which causes the plan to “imperil endangered wildlife.”

“The Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests are home to amazing diversity of animals and plants, including some of the most critically endangered species in the country. We cannot sit back while this irresponsible Forest Plan ignores the science, breaks the law, and puts these remarkable species at risk,” Sam Evans, leader of SELC’s National Forests and Parks Program, said in a press release. “Forest plans are revised only every 20 years or so, and our endangered bats won’t last that long unless we get this Plan right.”

The groups were among about 800 stakeholders who issued objections to the final plan last year.

The final stakeholder meetings and decision took place in August 2022. James Melonas, the forest supervisor for North Carolina was part of those final negotiations.

“With as complex as the forest is, not everyone is going to get everything that they want but we want to show that the things that are important are reflected in the plan,” Melonas said in 2022.

The letter gave notice to several agencies of the intent to sue in 60 days. The letter noticed U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Debra Haaland, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack, U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams and North Carolina National Forest Supervisor James Melonas.

BPR reached out to the U.S. Forest Service for comment. A spokesperson shared this statement:

"The Nantahala and Pisgah Forest plan was revised to handle the challenges of managing our complex ecosystems to meet the needs of all users for the next 20 years. These forests are some of the most biodiverse in the nation. Ensuring our forest ecosystems are healthy and resilient is critical to long-term sustainability of all the habitats and the ecosystem benefits on which we all depend. 

The Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests are among the most visited forests and support local economies through tourism. Ensuring visitors have a quality experience is important to us and the local communities we serve.   

The revised plan was developed in coordination with numerous agencies, organizations and the public, and builds on thousands of ideas incorporated over many years. Diverse opinions and ideas about how to manage the Nantahala and Pisgah are inherent in the complexity of carrying out the Forest Service’s multiple use mission in some of the most visited and biodiverse national forests in the country. Our commitment is that we will always strive to listen to and convene diverse perspectives to make the best decisions, informed by science, so we can create healthy and resilient forests now and for the future. 

We cannot comment on the status of ongoing litigation. We continue to encourage open public dialogue on matters pertaining to National Forest lands."

Alongside the 361-page final forest plan, the Forest Service published a 754-page environmental impact statement as well as the 95-page record of decision which explains the reasoning behind the plan. All those documents and others are available on the Forest Service website.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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