October 13th, 2006 05:35 EST
National Forest's Future at Stake
With the future of one of the east’s largest public recreation areas at stake, conservationists are voicing discontent with the U.S. Forest Service’s recent release of the new management plan for West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest.
“We are extremely concerned about the fate of the Mon’s special wild areas,” said Matt Keller, campaign coordinator with the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition.
Under the new plan, four of the forests areas will be added as permanently protected wilderness, but grassroots citizens’ organizations, led by the Wilderness Coalition lobbied for the addition of up to 15 areas to be protected in perpetuity.
“I think it’s great they added acreage,” Keller said. “But it falls short of what they could have done.”
During a 90 day public comment period held prior to the management plan’s release, the Forest Service received thousands of comments, the majority of which were in favor of more wilderness areas than had been previously recommended.
Areas mentioned in the public comments such as Seneca Creek, East Fork of Greenbrier, Spice Run, the Dolly Sods Expansion and Big Draft were not recommended as permanently protected wilderness under the Forest Service’s prescription.
"West Virginians, and people who travel from across the country to use the Mon, overwhelming support more wilderness on the National Forest," said Keller. "Of the 13,000 comments recently generated by the Forest Service’s Planning process for the Monongahela National Forest, over 90 percent called for more wilderness designations than what the Forest Service recommended."
Forest Planner David Ede said most of the comments received originated from out of state organizations. However, an overwhelming majority of comments from West Virginia also preferred additional wilderness areas to be added to the plan.
“The 2006 plan maintains timber supply levels similar to the 1986 plan and improves the flexibility in the management of vegetation and habitat diversity,” Ede said. “This plan was selected because it provides the best blend of resource management options such as protecting soil and water resources and increasing backcountry recreation opportunities.”
Ede added that management under the plan was altered in order to increase timber activity in various areas of the forest.
“We feel the Greenbrier County area has been neglected for harvest timber and we are certainly looking to increase activity there in order to get a better oak component to our oak stands,” he said.
But according to Keller, protecting public land is a better alternative for local economies by attracting businesses and generating revenue from the state’s growing travel and tourism industry. Last summer, the West Virginia Department of Tourism released a study indicating that tourism has increased in the state by 11.4 percent each year since 2000. The study also mentioned that the state’s strongest ‘product’ was backcountry recreation, abundant in West Virginia’s wilderness areas, Keller said.
"Unparalleled outdoor recreation found in the Mon’s wonderful wild lands plays an important role in ensuring a stable economy for our communities," Keller said. "Our state’s natural beauty can help attract new businesses and skilled workers as well as tourists who bring in money and support industries from hotels and restaurants to transportation, arts and entertainment."
The Monongahela National Forest, with over 918,000 acres over 10 West Virginia counties, is the fourth largest National Forest in the northeast.
Keller says official wilderness designation can only result as an act of the U.S. Congress. Members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation could permanently protect certain areas of the National Forest by introducing legislation despite the Forest Service’s recommendations.
"Wilderness designation is the only way to guarantee future generations will be able to use and enjoy the Mon just as we do today," Keller said.