Natural Areas Designations with the Nantahala & Pisgah NFs Plan Revision: An Evolving Process with the NC Natural Heritage Program + An ecological prescribed burn model for the Nantahala and Pisgah NFs

Gary Kauffman, National Forests of North Carolina

US National Forests (NF) revise their forest plans every 15-20 years. Currently the Nantahala and Pisgah NFs (NPNF), 1 million plus acres, are in plan revision. As part of the process, management areas are reassessed including designated sites. Special Interest Areas (SIAs) are designated to denote special features across the landscape. The majority are based on natural features or elements such as rare species, rare habitats, or high-quality plant communities. The NC Natural Heritage Program (NCNHP) delineates natural areas (NHNAs) across NC, including 230,000 acres across the NPNF. It denotes these with five classifications from the highest, exceptional, to the least, general. Of these, the NCNHP requested all the exceptional NHNAs, about 115,000 acres, be designated as SIAs. In the draft plan revision, the number of SIA acres has been doubled to around 103,000 acres. The discussion will describe the evaluation process and the continuing evolving process on assessing the undesignated and other classified acres as a USFS-NCNHP team. As part of the Nantahala and Pisgah NFs plan revision, an assessment was completed for the prescribe burn program. A critical question was whether we were burning in the right places, both for ecological benefit as well as fuel reduction. Neighborhood modeling in a GIS was used to derive ecological fire prioritization areas. The model used six separately weighted fire adapted ecological zones as well as fire adapted rare species (federally listed, endemic, and state rare with different weights). The same process was used to assess fuel reduction and community protection needs with incorporation of rankings from the southern wildfire risk assessment report. The discussion will look at the overlap between these two separate models as well as prescribe burns and or wildfires during the last 12 years within any of these areas.