By John McFerrin
It’s time again. The planning document that directs activities in the Monongahela National Forest is due for an update.
The Monongahela National Forest, as do all National Forests, operates on the basis of a master plan. For the Mon, it is the Monongahela National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan, commonly referred to as “The Plan.” It sets goals for the forest, identifies areas of the forest where certain activities would be appropriate, and generally lays out a plan for how the Forest Service manages the forest.
The original plan was done in 1986. The last major revision was in 2006, with minor revisions in 2011. A new plan is supposed to be done every ten to 15 years, so it is time for the Plan for the Monongahela National Forest to be revised. Although there has been no formal announcement, rumor has it that the Forest Service has begun work on a revision.
Revising the Plan is a long process with many opportunities to participate. Although the final Plan was not issued until September 2006, in April 2004, The Highlands Voice had an article about the planning process and urging people to participate. According to the story, by that time the Forest Service and some members of the public (including the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy) had already been having discussions about Forest Plan revisions for a year.
For those concerned about the management of the Monongahela National Forest, this is a big deal. By law, the Forest is supposed to be managed for “multiple use,” which the law defines as “for outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, and wildlife and fish purposes.” The Plan defines how the Forest Service will go about balancing these interests.
While the Plan does not commit the Forest Service to doing or not doing a specific project, it does direct how projects are selected and carried out. For advocates both for and against any specific project, having language in the Plan can be a powerful tool. If, for example, someone is concerned that a particular project does not do enough to protect old growth forests, a Plan commitment to old growth forests would be helpful.
The Plan is supposed to be comprehensive, so, anything could theoretically be on the table. Among issues to be discussed are:
- Forest health, including how that is defined. The timber industry defines “forest health in terms of ability to produce lumber.” A broader definition would include a broader view of forest health, including all species and their interactions.
- Roadless areas. Leaving some areas of the Forest without roads preserves the wild nature of those areas. Roads also provide a route for invasive species, traffic, and accidental fire to enter parts of the Forest.
- Wilderness areas. A new Plan would potentially identify areas that are suitable for formal Wilderness designation.
- Logging. The Monongahela National Forest does contain some valuable timber. At the same time, equivalent timber can be found on nearby private land. How the timber on the Forest will be managed is a recurring question.
- Off highway vehicles. Currently off highway vehicles are not allowed in the Monongahela National Forest. The next Plan could help determine whether this remains the case.
- Watershed protections. The Forest is home to the most ecologically healthy streams in the state, including most of the naturally reproducing trout streams. A Plan would set out how those streams are to be protected.
- Recreation. The Monongahela National Forest is currently home to outstanding recreational opportunities. The Plan will have to address how those opportunities are to be maintained, including how they can be maintained without interfering with the other purposes of the Forest.
- Threatened, endangered, and sensitive species. There are several species that are found in the Forest. The Plan will have to account for them, including how the Forest Service will manage the Forest in a way that protects them.
Things have changed in the 17 years since there was a new Plan for the Monongahela National Forest. While climate change was known in 2006, it was not top of mind as it is today. Floods and wildfires will do that. The 2006 Plan made scant mention of climate change; the minor revision in 2011 added several mentions of the term although there was nothing that committed the Forest Service to doing anything that accounted for climate change. Most of the 2011 changes could be summed up as “we know there is such a thing as climate change; what we are doing fights climate change; we are going to keep on doing what we are doing.”
Since then, we have had a directive from the Secretary of Agriculture on the importance of fighting climate change. Secretary Vilsack Directs USDA Forest Service to Take Bold Action to Restore Forests, Improve Resilience, and Curb Climate Change | USDA. The Forest Service will have to take the issue more seriously this time around.
There is also a newly listed endangered species that a revised Forest Plan will have to consider: the candy darter. Already there are allegations that, under the present Plan, it is not being protected. See the May 2023 issue of The Highlands Voice. The next Plan will have to address protections for the candy darter and other species.
One final new thing is enhanced protection of old growth forests. In 2022, President Biden issued an executive order which, among other things, recognized the value of old growth forests and directed federal agencies to take steps to protect them. Executive Order on Strengthening the Nation’s Forests, Communities, and Local Economies | The White House. With this as the current federal policy, the Forest Service would have another reason to emphasize old growth forests in a new Forest Plan.
As the planning continues, The Highlands Voice will have more information, including opportunities of make comments or otherwise be involved.
As an added bonus, this is an opportunity for connoisseurs of acronyms to really step up their game. The 2006 Plan has a list of three- and one-half pages of acronyms that the Plan uses. It includes such favorites as CMS (Cheat Mountain Salamander), AMS (Analysis of the Management Situation), DFC (Desired Future Condition), and VBEB (Virginia Big-Eared Bat). For those wishing to expand their acronym vocabularies, the planning process will present a plethora of possibilities.