Friday, April 9, 2010

Management plan solicits public opinion

*Picture courtesy of author Andy Thompson*

Management plan solicits public opinion

At 1.1 million acres in Virginia and West Virginia, the George Washington National Forest is big enough to accommodate a multitude of interests and users. In numerous trips west the past couple of years, I've biked, hiked and fished on it. Others hunt, watch birds, ride horses, camp and pilot their all-terrain vehicles. Then there are the commercial interests - most notably logging - that have a claim on the land.

But even a million-plus acres isn't enough to prevent user conflicts from erupting, especially when you consider that more than 5 million people live within a two-hour drive of some part of the forest. That's why the Forest Service, which administers, manages and polices all national forests, undertakes periodic revisions of its management plan for each forest unit.

That process is just beginning for the George Washington. It starts with five public meetings in April. In Lexington, Verona, Woodstock, Hot Springs and Baker, W.Va., the public will have an opportunity to have its voice heard and help shape a draft forest plan. People also can submit written comments during a 60-day public-comment period. The new plan likely will be in place by the end of 2011.

*Picture courtesy of Metro Sucks* (Bald Ridge Trail near Braley Pond George Washington National Forest.)

As The Associated Press reported, "[the plan] will address logging and other commercial uses, recreation, road and trail building, drinking-water protection and preservation of the forest's more pristine areas. . . . Among the items under consideration are expanding roadless areas, increasing timber harvesting, creating more special areas to protect ecologically sensitive species, increasing controlled burns and dropping a plan for a new all-terrain vehicle trail near Archer Run."

The significance of this management plan revision - a process that occurs every 15 years - may not seem immediate to Central Virginia lowlanders, but it certainly is to those who live, work and play on and near the GW.

*Picture courtesy of Metro Sucks* (Looking into West Virginia while climbing up to Little Bald Knob. George Washington National Forest.)

Chris Scott, a former professional mountain biker, owns and operates Shenandoah Mountain Touring out of Harrisonburg. He takes customers on bike tours of the western part of the state, crisscrossing the national forest on its endless single-track trails and fire roads.

"The public can influence the plan," he said. "Whether it's requesting better habitat management for grouse hunting or mentioning an [area] that might get logged that you don't want them to log in."

He and other mountain bikers are trying to convince the Forest Service to officially recognize trails as resources.

*Picture courtesy of Metro Sucks* (Bald Ridge Trail near Braley Pond George Washington National Forest.)

"Trails themselves have an economic value," he argued. "They get people out in the woods; people spend money in their local communities."

He said that many times he has come upon favorite trails that have been turned into "firelines" by loggers running "an 8-foot-wide bulldozer down a chunk of it and totally destroying it. It's a trail. They shouldn't just drive the machines down the trail because it looks like the easiest way to get into that area."

Tammy Bellinsky, a board member at Virginia Forest Watch, said her group exists to watchdog the Forest Service "to make sure that they are managing the forest within the bounds of the law and the within the bounds of the management plan."

One of the group's goals, she said, is to get the Forest Service to achieve a better balance among logging, recreational and environmental interests.

*Picture courtesy of Metro Sucks* (Looking south at Douthat State Park’s Brushy Mountain, Middle Mtn & Beards Mtn. from a scenic stop along the IMBA epic “Southern Traverse” ride. George Washington National Forest.)

"What's really lacking in how the Forest Service manages the forest is real monitoring data that shows that what they set out to do when they log is what they achieved."

Ken Landgraf, a Forest Service planner, said logging is undertaken primarily to develop the early successional habitat that grows up in areas that have been logged. The goal is to aid species such as grouse, quail, yellow chat, and golden-winged warblers.

"There are some people who think that's very important for wildlife diversity," he said. "There are other people who would prefer for more natural processes to occur and that we don't do as much active management."

Hunters who've watched game such as grouse and whitetail drop significantly on the national forest want to see more habitat work, whether it comes after logging or prescribed burns. Hikers and horseback riders, on the other hand, probably don't enjoy walking through clear cuts. Bikers want more trails and existing ones respected.

That's the tug of war constantly taking place over the forest.

"We have an awful lot of users and uses but we also have 1.1 million acres of land, so we can address a lot of the uses," he said. "Many of those uses aren't compatible on the same acre of land, but we do have enough acres that we can have wilderness and do timber harvest, for instance. But it is a matter of 'How much of each?'"

*Picture courtesy of Metro Sucks* (One of the views from atop Elliott’s Knob on the Great North Mountain looking west toward the Shenandoah Mountain range. George Washington National Forest.)

Contact Andy Thompson at

(804) 649-6579 or

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