Haywood County is surrounded on two sides by National Forest lands and National Park lands. With the Pisgah National Forest on the south end and Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the north, park land comprises roughly half of the county.

A portion of that land is already designated as wilderness, or a place where activities such as building roads, logging, or even maintaining trails aren't allowed. The acreage under this designation could grow by nearly 3,700 acres if the plan under review is approved by Congress.

Since the spring of 2014, the forest service has been in the process of revising its forest management plan in the region. Part of that process is reviewing various tracts of land that could be designated as wilderness areas within park lands.

Within the Pisgah National Forest, Shining Rock Wilderness, at over 18,000 acres and the nearby Middle Prong Wilderness, at almost 8,000 acres, total just over 26,000 acres of Haywood land designated as wilderness areas under The Wilderness Act of 1964.

A long road to go

The process to officially designate the lands, however, is lengthy and would involve an act of Congress before anything is officially designated.

As part of the plan revision process, the land evaluation includes four steps:

The first two steps are now complete and the plan is moving into the analysis phase.

Lands that end up in the final recommendation would still need to be approved by Congress before inclusion in the NWPS, an action that hasn’t occurred in North Carolina since 1984.

Originally, four parcels of land were under consideration within Haywood. However, during the evaluation process, it was determined that land bordering the Pigeon River near Max Patch recreation area and Interstate 40 would be unsuitable as it failed to meet the wilderness characteristics of solitude and minimal human intervention.

Still up for consideration

Three other parcels have moved on to the analysis phase, and if approved, could eventually be considered as extensions to the existing Middle Prong and Shining Rock Wilderness areas.

Middle Prong and Shining Rock are adjacent wilderness areas in the Pisgah Ranger District, separated by N. C. 215 and situated north of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The area north of Middle Prong, including Sunburst, extending from its northern boundary (see maps) to Inman Branch was initially under consideration, but has been vastly reduced, from a proposed 6,676 acres to 1,871 acres.

According to the evaluation report, “Due to the area shape, configuration, and adjacent land uses, the northern half of the Middle Prong Extension area does not have wilderness characteristics. … As a result of the evaluation, the boundary of this area has been adjusted… to better reflect the portion of the area that evaluated as having wilderness characteristics.”

The lands under consideration for extension of the Shining Rock Wilderness area were likewise reduced to exclude regions that lack wilderness characteristics.

The Graveyard Fields extension, consisting of 2,339 acres was reduced to 914 acres, with the area north of Graveyard Ridge and east of the Art Loeb Trail remaining. The area south of Graveyard Ridge, encompassing the most frequented hiking trails of Graveyard Fields was excluded due to its lack of opportunity for solitude and extensive improvements and modifications.

In the initial inventory, the Sam Knob extension consisted of 2,629 acres. After the evaluation, this region has been reduced to 910 acres. If approved, it could extend Shining Rock south from its existing border, all the way to Sam Knob, bounded by N.C. 215 on the west and Ivestor Gap Trail on the east.

Opposition

Responding to public concerns that conversion of additional land to wilderness area would result in reduced economic opportunity and increased management concerns for the citizens of Haywood, the Haywood County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution in February 2015, opposing the extension of existing wilderness lands within the county borders.

Even though the acreage under consideration has been greatly reduced as the plan progresses, Haywood County Commissioner Chairman Mark Swanger remains wary of the potential ramifications.

“There is still a concern that trail maintenance and signage would be reduced. It is of no benefit to the county to have wilderness areas increased,” he said.

The county’s primary concerns, should additional land fall under wilderness designation, he said, are those of public safety hazards and a loss of economic benefit.

“I am very familiar with the areas under consideration. It is rugged terrain there. We have had several rescue operations there and my concern is that this would make the job of search and rescue teams even more difficult if it comes to pass,” he said.

He also expressed concern that without proper maintenance, trails would fall into disrepair and would no longer be attractive to visitors.

“I don’t think families and tourists would choose unmaintained or unmarked trails over better maintained trails,” he said. “Leaving it alone is the best course, in my opinion. Changing these areas to wilderness does not provide significant advantages for the county, but there are certainly disadvantages.”

Moving forward

Remaining in the planning process are steps three and four.

According to the Forest Service website, for step three, potential wilderness sites will be further analyzed to develop an environmental impact statement in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act. The analysis will consider the effect of recommended wilderness on other forest resources.

This step will categorize the lands into several alternative plan options for the public to consider.

The alternatives also take into consideration public feedback that has been received thus far.

Forest Service documents indicate some areas were intentionally left out of alternative combinations because of public comments voiced for other management in these areas, including mountain biking and motorized travel.

The alternative options as they are presented on the Forest Service website are as follows:

Alternative A – No Action

“There are six existing wildernesses on the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests, totaling 66,337 acres. The current Forest Plan has five Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs), three of which are recommended for wilderness. As the no action alternative, no new wildernesses are recommended for designation in this alternative. Existing recommendations for Craggy, Harper Creek and Lost Cove WSAs are carried forward in this alternative.”

Alternative B – Balanced action

This alternative aims to balance the interests of those who desire more wilderness acreage on the forest with those who would like no more designated wilderness areas. It includes extensions to existing wilderness areas and continued recommendations for Wilderness Study Areas to be officially designated.

Alternative C – More Wildernesses

“Alternative C responds to the public desire for more areas and acres of wilderness.

Alternative C includes the same extensions to wilderness that are included in Alternative B, as well as extensions to Ellicott Rock Wilderness and Linville Gorge Wilderness.

Alternative B and C would essentially have the same effect for Haywood County land, as both plans include the same extensions to Middle Prong and Shining Rock.

Input still needed

There is still much planning and opportunity for the public’s input before any final recommendations are made.

The Forest Service has set a goal of Spring 2017 to release a draft of the environmental impact study, which will then be available for comment.

The plan will then advance to its last step, the final recommendation of lands to include in the National Wilderness Preservation System.

If signed by the Forest Supervisor, the proposal would then be forwarded to the Chief of the Forest Service. It would then move to the Secretary of Agriculture and ultimately Congress for final approval before any official designations are made.

To weigh in on the proposal and the identified alternatives, send comments to NCplanrevision@fs.fed.us with the subject line “Wilderness Evaluations” or mail comments to: Attn: Plan Revision Team Leader; National Forests in North Carolina; 160 Zillicoa St. Suite A; Asheville, NC 28801.

There will be a formal public comment period when the draft environmental impact statement is released.

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