Editor’s Note: The following is an Op/Ed written by Andy Hayslip, MountainTrue’s High Country Director and the Watauga Riverkeeper.
On December 7, a large coalition of conservation and recreation groups issued a memorandum of understanding (MOU), in effect a statement of principles, for what they want to see come out of the forest plan revision process for the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests.
This took thousands of hours of hard work, collaboration, and compromise. The result is a win-win proposal that supports more permanent land protections and Wilderness areas, as well as more trails and more public access.
Wilderness advocates and conservationists support this proposal, because it wins stronger protections for more than 364,000 of the national forest’s 1 million acres including 109,000 acres of designated Wilderness Area.
Recreational users of our national forests also support this proposal because it would create two new National Recreation Areas and provide greater public access to hikers, horseback riders, climbers, and mountain bikers.
MountainTrue is proud to join the Wilderness Society, the International Mountain Biking Association, Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, The Access Fund, Nantahala Hiking Club, and many others in support of this MOU because we believe Western North Carolina’s national forests are one of our region’s greatest assets and should be protected for their inherent beauty, biodiversity, and public value.
We also understand that, in a well-managed forest, there is no inherent contradiction between conservation and recreation. Studies have shown that the key in mitigating human recreational impact on the environment is through sustainably designed and managed trails. People are part of the environment, and access to recreation can provide for fun, sustainable, and enriching sources of adventure while simultaneously inspiring future conservationists who seek to preserve these lands that have provided so much in return.
In the High Country, that philosophy of maintaining wilderness protections while creating more recreational opportunities would have a direct impact on the Harper Creek and Lost Cove Wilderness Study Areas. These areas were put aside to be studied for possible designation as wilderness areas under the 1984 Wilderness Bill, and the Wilderness Act prohibits mechanical transportation. The reality is that mountain biking is occurring in Harper Creek and Lost Cove, without sanction by the Forest Service or trails designed for that use. It’s a less than ideal situation that has sparked local passions.
MountainTrue sat down with local leaders, stakeholders from Caldwell County, and mountain bikers to work out a compromise. Our vision is to establish mountain biking access with sustainably built and maintained trails that would serve as a connector for the larger network of trails within the forest on either side of the Harper Creek and Lost Cove Wilderness Study Areas. Areas not needed for bicycle access would become designated Wilderness within a Congressionally designated National Recreation Area.
Additionally, mountain bikers have agreed to join rock climbers, horseback riders and hikers in supporting stronger protections for 400,000 acres of the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forests including the designation of 109,000 additional acres for inclusion under the Wilderness Act, our country’s most comprehensive and permanent form of protection. Once legislation is completed, the trail systems in the area will benefit from the considerable resources of local mountain bike clubs.
That last part is crucial. The establishment of additional Wilderness and new National Recreation Areas require acts of Congress. This is no easy feat, especially in this political climate, but thanks to similar partnerships between recreation and conservation communities, it’s been successfully done at Hermosa Creek in Colorado, where 70,000 acres were permanently protected (38,000 as Wilderness), and in Columbine Hondo Wilderness in New Mexico, where a boundary adjustment to an existing Wilderness Area drew recreational support for 45,000 acres of new Wilderness. Both of these examples are from the past year and both were won with a broad coalition that included mountain bikers.
Conservationists, hunters, fishers, mountain bikers, and all of us who love our national forests should let the Forest Service know that we support this MOU. Members of the public can visit mountaintrue.org to submit public comment. Organizations interested in lending their support to the MOU, contact me at [email protected]
To get this done, we need to do it together.
For more information, check out the following links:
The text of the MOU, maps and background are all available here: http://mountaintrue.org/a-win-win-mou/
Here’s an article that ran about the MOU in the Citizen-Times: http://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2015/12/11/groups-propose-recreation-areas-wnc-national-forests/77165698/
Here’s the press release that The Wilderness Society put out: http://mountaintrue.org/forestmou/