Today, dozens will join Congressman Mark Meadows at a listening session on the topic of increasing protection for public lands. The U.S. Forest Service is in its fourth year of revising its Forest Plans for the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests.
Less than seven percent of land east of the Mississippi is protected by a federal wilderness designation, and conservation groups have argued that isn’t enough.
Bill Van Horn, who maintains trails in the Highlands area, said he agrees.
“This could be our last, best time with this forest plan being revised,” he said. “If history repeats itself, it will be 15, 20, 25 years before another forest plan.”
Participation in today’s event is by invitation only, but the public can sit in to listen at the Haywood County Courthouse.
Designating new wilderness starts with a recommendation from the Forest Service and requires an act of Congress to become official. In the past, Congressman Meadows has said he would not introduce legislation to designate more wilderness.
Outdoor advocates say protecting public land is the best way to preserve habitat for wildlife as well as recreation.
Ashby Underwood is a Highlands business owner who supports greater protection of lands in the area.
“Just because we can amend the land as humans doesn’t mean that we should,” she said.
According to The Wilderness Society, quality of life is connected to public lands access. Van Horn said recent research has found that rural counties with more than 30 percent protected public land increased jobs four times faster than others with no protected land.
“Wilderness east of the Mississippi, there’s hardly any land that has not had the impact of man,” he added. “And I believe the Wilderness Act’s intent is to identify those treasured areas and allow them to heal.”
The Wilderness Act was passed in 1964 and since then, 109 million acres of federal lands have been permanently protected as wilderness, parks, and refuges. Most non-motorized activities are still permitted on these lands.
People can continue to submit comments on the Forest Plans to the U.S. Forest Service.