There’s a spiritual quality. There’s something about the unmanaged areas deep in the woods, the places where birds and animals can live without being disturbed. The George Washington National Forest is a good place to get away from the hectic pace of one’s job and enjoy its lovely scenic qualities, they said.
Most of the 50 or so people gathered Monday at Hot Springs Presbyterian Church told U.S. Forest Service officials that the GWNF, which covers 1,065,000 acres in this region, has been pretty well-managed over the years, and they don’t want much about it to change, even for the sake of renewable wind power on the electric grid.
USFS staff invited citizens to the first in a series of regional meetings held this week across the GWNF ranger districts. The meetings were designed to learn how the public uses the forest, and what those folks would like it to look like 50 years from now. In general, most here said they’d like it to stay pretty much the way it is.
Forestry officials are on a mission to revamp the strategic plan that guides projects and goals on the federal lands – a document similar to comprehensive plans for localities in Virginia. They want to know what residents think is working, and what should be changed. Gathering that input will guide forest personnel as they rewrite the GWNF plan, which has not been fully revised since 1993.
Their goal this time around is to create a strategic plan that guides projects toward certain “desired conditions” – what the forest should look like.
Warm Springs Ranger District ranger Pat Sheridan welcomed those who braved this area’s strong winds Monday, expressing his appreciation for such a strong attendance in Bath County, where about half the property consists of federal land under the GWNF.
Forestry official Ken Landgraf explained the process, and how USFS officials hope to build and maintain relationships with citizens who use the forest. “We want to create and open and transparent process,” he said.
As the plan process evolves, notes from meetings and new drafts will be posted on the forest web site: www.fs.fed.us/r8/gwj, where the initial draft is available.
“We want you to help us decide what the focus is, and how to prioritize the issues,” Landgraf said.
After two rounds of public workshops, there may be additional meetings scheduled on certain controversial subjects, he said. The meetings will be followed by publishing public notices, and a 90-day comment period this fall. In addition, a 30-day objection process follows in the summer of 2008 once the plan has been revised with public comments. Landgraf says the USFS hopes to have a signed plan in place by fall 2008.
Forest supervisor Maureen Hyzer said a team of GWNF staff had created the first draft as a starting place to make revisions. Hyzer will make the final decision on the document.
Those attending were organized into five groups, each with a USFS representative to ask questions and take notes about what people liked or didn’t like about the national forest here. In general, most spoke strongly about how well the forest was managed, particularly under the concept of separate areas for different uses – everything from wilderness to research and recreational areas.
Several said they believed forest rangers did a particularly good job with prescribed burns, communicating with the public, involving the public in projects, and protecting clean waters, especially riparian areas, and wildlife habitat.
Brad Kreps of The Nature Conservancy said he appreciates how well the GWNF manages biodiversity. “You all have done a good job recognizing that diversity and protecting the variety of habitats,” he said.
Landgraf said the most controversial topics at such meetings are usually roadless wilderness areas, the amount and location of timber management, and in this area, the potential for developing wind energy.
There is a lawsuit contesting the planning process, which is awaiting a judge’s opinion. Landgraf explained if the judge rules in favor of those challenging, forestry officials will go back to using the regulations for the 1993 plan. “It’s frustrating not knowing what’s going to happen,” he said. “This whole process could change in the middle.”
The main difference is that new regulations do not require an Environmental Impact Statement, and some citizens fear that will lead to fewer opportunities for public involvement. Landgraf said there will be just as much public input this time around, and this plan will be more likely to remain current because new regulations are more flexible.
Landgraf says he believes two things the GWNF does well are maintaining riparian and water quality standards, and its good mix of managed and unmanaged forest. “We are moving back to a lower level of management and there’s room to adjust. I’m pretty happy with the “˜93 plan. We’ve had no major problems with where we’re going,” he said.
Most residents said if there were improvements to be made, they would include things like keeping trail damage to a minimum and not allowing all-terrain vehicles to ruin the environment or peace.
After the group discussions, Hyzer noted the two areas people mentioned again and again were Laurel Fork and Hidden Valley, and that she heard several important issues about trails, management areas, invasive species, and the emerging wind energy industry.
“There were a lot of concerns about wind energy,” she said, “and even those who support it say they don’t want it on national forest.”
USFS officials were holding meetings in other districts throughout this week, and summaries of those meetings will also be posted on the GWNF web site.
By Anne Adams “¢ Staff Writer
8 March 2007
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