If good things do indeed come to those who wait, the soon to be released draft management plan for the Pisgah and Nantahala forests is going to be special. The plan will provide the framework for how the 1.1 million acres of the forest in the Southern Appalachia and their resources will be managed for the next 20 years.

For seven years, a collaborative group called the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership (NPFP) has worked through the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) public process to assist them in the formation of their management goals and objectives. NPFP partners consist of diverse groups representing wildlife, recreation, forest products, conservation interests and county governments that are seeking common ground, while recognizing that our national forests are utilized by a diverse community with many different needs.

Over the seven years, the NPFP has spent countless hours around the table. Member groups who are historically at odds with each other and whose values are sometimes in conflict, dug deep to find common ground and together made important recommendations to the Forest Service.

Through a better understanding of each other’s views, NPFP members began to see a path forward that reflected the need to use timber harvests to restore forested ecosystems that are threatened by a lack of biodiversity, while at the same time protecting special places and rare species.

NPFP recognized that there is so much restoration needed within the 1.1 million acres of forestland, that by choosing specific areas to work within, they could keep conflict at bay over the lifetime of the plan and beyond.

In October 2017, the public submitted final comments to the USFS before they began writing the draft plan and environmental assessment required for integration of the different management plan options. The NPFP worked diligently, meeting for full days once a month, to comprehensively match stakeholder values with planning that would achieve recreation, conservation and restoration goals. You can read what the NPFP submitted to the Forest Service and read their consensus statements at https://npforestpartnership.org/draft-plan. NPFP members realized that of the acreage up for debate, the members agreed on 83 percent of the forestland while the diverse interests did not intersect in a way that caused tension to rise above reason. Even on those few remaining contentious places across the forests, we strive for balance.

An example of how a collaborative approach to land management can provide multi-beneficial results can be observed in the USFS ongoing 12 Mile Project. The project combines the need for elk habitat, timber revenue, wildlife corridors and recreational trails with the conserving of old growth habitat and restoring open woodlands. The scale of this 2,300-acre project, the largest ever on either forest, is the type of collaborative land management success story for which the NPFP advocates.

The NPFP has put in the time to find consensus and an approach to managing forests that will appeal to the largest majority of the citizens who own it. We are about to see if the USFS is listening.

When the USFS releases the draft management plan, NPFP members and affiliates will be reading the draft documents, supporting the many areas that pave the way for collaborative management and, perhaps, disagreeing with those things we feel allow for or inspire unnecessary conflict on the forest. We encourage you to do the same and provide comments, attend community events and fully participate within the 90-day period that will follow. This is the time for everyone to stand united for a plan that is in the best interest of the health and longevity of our National Forests. If we truly want the Pisgah and Nantahala to remain special for everyone, we must work together. Keep your eyes open for when the drafts are released and reach out to your colleagues to learn more about how they are participating in the 90-day comment period. Learn more from the NPFP website, www.npforestpartnership.org.

The NPFP continues to meet monthly, as there is still work to be done and our job will not end once the plan is finalized. Our members are committed to the implementation of the final plan and finding ways to leverage resources and ideas in support of projects like 12 Mile. The NPFP is thankful for our Forest Service and all their hard work throughout this cumbersome process. We are optimistic about the future of Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests.

Lang Hornthal is the communications director with the nonprofit forest management group EcoForesters, and Kevin Colburn is the national stewardship director for American Whitewater. Both are members of the Nantahala Pisgah Forest Partnership.