The Carolina Public Press is a in-depth investigative news service based in Asheville, N.C. For my senior graduation project I had the opportunity to work with the Public Press. My first assignment was to go to local polling places and take photos. The photos were published and can be found here. I also wrote a news story for CPP which is printed below.
West Henderson High School senior Vivian Rodriguez assists Roy Presley in voting in the March 15, 2016, primary election at Mills River Elementary School in Mills River. Ari Sen / Carolina Public Press.
CPP HOLDS FORUM ON NC LAND USE IN HONOR OF EARTH DAY
Carolina Public Press Managing editor Frank Taylor moderated a panel discussion on public land use in Western North Carolina on Earth Day, Friday, April 22, 2016.
The panel consisted of Allen Nicholas, a forest supervisor for the N.C. Forest Service, Gordon Warburton, an ecoregion supervisor for N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and Roderick Simmons, the director of the Asheville Department of Parks and Recreation. The panelist discussed various issues around public land use in North Carolina including community communication, outreach and engagement, endangered and invasive species, debates over recreation land use versus conservation, lack of resources and local vs state control.
“Successful conservation is based on working with local folks,” Warburton said. “Getting local support is very, very important.”
One specific issue discussed was the tensions caused by proposed revisions to the forest management plan, a document that describes how North Carolina’s four National Forest’s will be managed for the following 10 to 15 years. Each park has it’s own plan except for the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests which are combined into a single plan. The drafting process for the latest Nantahala and Pisgah forest plan will begin in this month and will be released in the fall.
Even though the forest plan has not even been drafted yet, there has already been controversy over some of the proposed revisions. Members of the Forest Service would like to expand wilderness areas in the latest revision of the forest plan, but this has proved to be controversial for local governments. Members of Macon County’s Board of Commissioners recently refused to support the proposed revisions to the forest and chose rather to affirm a 2014 resolution that would oppose any additions to wilderness areas. Nicholas said that this controversy is all part of the drafting process.
“People can get somewhat polarized… that is absolutely part of the process,” Nicholas said. “When the (Pisgah/Nantahala Forest management plan) draft comes out there are going to be no surprises.”
Panelists were also questioned on possible damage that is being done to mountain aquatic organisms particularly by invasive species.
“We’ve got a series of issues,” Warburton said. “In our reservoirs white perch, alewife hydrilla, bluebacks herring and spotted bass (are under threat). These are issues caused by people moving fish around… it’s sort of like the globalization of our species’.”
Nicholas also stressed the danger of these non-native species.
“Invasives I think are one of the biggest ecological game changers we are going to see in the next 30 to 40 years,” Nicholas said. “There is really no way we can treat the literally hundreds and hundreds of acres that these species dominate.”
Warburton also discussed the dangers of feral animals to the environment.
“We are running into (problems with feral animals) here to,” Warburton said. “It’s a tricky situation. They can have impacts that a normal natural predator would not have.
More local concerns regarding conservation were also discussed in the panel including the recent debate over whether to develop on Collier Woods, a patch of urban forest land on the south side of Asheville. Simmons said that Collier is a prime example of how the Asheville Parks and Recreation Department works with local communities.
“It’s very challenging in terms of how we manage (balancing public concerns). We try to sit down and think what is best for the overall community. We are an environmental community that takes the area’s very seriously in term of the natural environment and how we sustain it,” Simmons said. “Over the past 10 years it has been our intent to plan more on a regional basis. You’ll see that a lot going forward.”
Warburton and Nicholas believe that there is significant public misunderstanding on who owns public land and how it is managed which can lead to tension and debate.
“The truth is we really can’t strike a balance with this stuff,” Nicholas said. “People hold their needs and wants and desires so closely.”
“There are a lot of different public landowners and each of these places have different purposes and missions,” Warburton said. “State parks are more recreationally oriented.”
All the panelists agreed that there was more pressure on public lands to serve multiple purposes for citizens.
“Access is a big thing everywhere,” Nicholas said. “Think of the forest service as a Monroe shock absorber we are constantly contracting and expanding in order to give someone a better ride. There is a suite of things the forest service is tasked with managing.”
The panel was also opened up to a question and answer session from the audience. Persons in attendance asked various questions ranging from how the panelist reach out to underrepresented groups to the general purpose of the forest service.
All the panelist stressed the importance of community engagement in support of their respective organizations. Simmons says that engagement with disenfranchised communities in the Asheville area is of particular concern for the Asheville Parks Department.
“What we are trying to do now is move to more of an engagement process where citizens are determining together as a community what they would like to see as opposed to the staff simply coming back and saying ‘here’s your choices’” Simmons said. “We are starting new initiatives like open city halls and a WordClouds on our website.”
Nicholas has come to view this community engagement as one of North Carolina’s greatest assets.
“One of the opportunities I see in North Carolina is how much people love this place,” Nicholas said. “The truly unique character it has leads a lot of folks to want it to be protected and managed and maintained.”