A decade ago the Director of the Southern Appalachian office of the Wilderness Society and the Executive Director of the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards approached me to see if SORBA and IMBA would be interested in creating a coalition that would work toward a shared vision to help the USFS manage the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest.
At that meeting in Clayton, GA, we agreed that in the past, each of our organizations had worked independently with the USFS in pursuit of our own objectives. This approach too often pitted the interests of environmental groups against the recreational community.
What would happen if you put hikers in the same room with foresters? Or hunters in the same room as environmentalist? Or Mountain bikers with Wilderness advocates? Mountain bikers with horseback riders? Ok, anybody in the same room with mountain bikers. I thought, “this won’t work; these groups don’t get long. This could end in a brawl.”
But what if all these groups recognized that the others had legitimate missions and that there was enough Forest to accommodate all constituencies? What if there were enough space in the forest for all of us? What if we could work together and create a united vision of what the forest could be? Didn’t we all want pretty much the same thing? To protect our wild places even though we had different ways to enjoy those places. Ok, so we signed up. “let’s give it a shot,” I thought.
That meeting led to more meetings and we added the other environmental and recreation groups (hikers, white water enthusiasts, climbers, horseback riders, gemologists) and also forest products, local government representatives. Any group with interest in the management of the forest was invited. After a couple of years, a group of diverse forest users formed what is now the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partners (NPFP). This group was created to address the Forest Planning revision that the USFS was about to undertake.
Creating and sustaining this organization was no easy task, but it worked. Nothing quite like this has ever been done, at least not in this part of the country. There was tension in the room during those early meetings (and some later ones as well). Just figuring out who could speak at a meeting, in what order and how long…so many procedural things to consider. I think the Korean Peace talks went more smoothly than those first few years of negotiations. But we did see that we didn’t disagree on everything, we did have areas of common interest. We all shared the view that our forests conserve valuable necessary ecosystem and on the other end of the spectrum, we agreed that our forests were economic drivers for many communities, that both plants, animals and people needed these places.
IMBA and SORBA became full partners. The Outdoor Alliance sent funding to IMBA and SORBA to help off-set the costs of participating in the process as we came into the last couple of years of the planning process. I spent a lot of time in Asheville and in other spots around the Southern Appalachians representing mountain biking interests and building relationships with other forest interest groups during this process. And although there were a few rough times, thankfully, there were no brawls, although it came close to it a couple of times. In fact, I think a lot of unlikely friendships were forged.
The results of all the time and resources can be seen in this document. Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership. The USFS now has the document that confirms that cooperation between diverse forest user groups is possible and that we can all work together to manage our forest.
This document was submitted to the USFS at the end of June along with separate letters from both IMBA and SORBA amplifying the points we needed to make about the importance of mountain biking and its place in the forest as a positive and vital recreational activity. The NPFP worked hard and long at finding common ground among our diverse organizations, but it did find consensus and it created a remarkable, and I think historic document.
I want to thank Pisgah Area SORBA, Nantahala SORBA, and the Northwest North Carolina Mountain Bike Alliance for providing IMBA and SORBA vital local intelligence during this long process so that we could make the best recommendations to the USFS on mountain biking in the new Forest Plan.
I want to especially recognize the work of Julie White who not only participated in the NPFP as a full partner, but also served on the Recreation Committee and NPFP leadership committee. If I couldn’t make a meeting, she covered for me. She also participated in a separate group created by the USFS where she again looked after our interests. Over the last seven or eight years, she has contributed voluntarily well over a thousand hours of her time. All mountain bikers owe her a huge thank you. She was the mountain bike rock star of the show.
And, now that the NPFP, SORBA, and IMBA have presented our official comments, we must realize the work has only just begun. We await the USFS response to our comments and then we need to roll up our sleeves and follow through on our commitment to the USFS as it adopts and implements a new forest plan.