New George Washington National Forest Plan

The USDA Forest Service’s new land and resource management plan for the George Washington National Forest, released today, will help conserve and restore a core network of resilient forests and improve healthy watersheds, while demonstrating the value of public collaboration on similar projects.

“The George Washington National Forest contains some of the most biologically rich temperate broadleaf forests on the planet,” said Marek Smith, program director of the Conservancy’s Allegheny Highlands Program. “As Virginia’s largest forest, it supports a tremendous diversity of plant and animal species, ensures clean drinking water for neighboring communities and provides boundless recreational opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts. We’re grateful to have helped play an important role in protecting this valuable resource and commend Forest Service staff for developing the plan through a collaborative and engaging public process.”

The new plan outlines the various desired conditions and permitted uses of the forest, which spans across Virginia and parts of West Virginia: for recreation, wildlife management, ecosystem restoration and forest products. The George Washington National Forest is a popular destination for hikers, mountain bikers and hunters; an asset to the forest products industry; and valuable real estate for a diverse and important community of species. Development of the plan drew upon The Nature Conservancy’s long history of successful science-based approaches to conservation and reflects the Conservancy’s efforts to bring together varied—and sometimes competing—interests in how the land is used.

“I’d like to thank TNC for their significant contributions to the George Washington Plan Revision. We modeled the process for identifying desired conditions for forest vegetation after TNC’s Conservation Action Planning principles,” stated Forest Supervisor Tom Speaks. “In addition to providing this framework, Marek Smith, Director of the TNC Allegheny Highlands Program, played a key role in bringing together individuals and organizations with diverse interests to recommend a common set of objectives and goals for managing the George Washington National Forest.”

The Nature Conservancy, which owns land directly adjacent to the 1.1-million acre George Washington National Forest on Warm Springs Mountain, contributed its scientific expertise to help the USDA Forest Service develop the plan in these ways:

  • The Conservancy has modelled a method to determine, map and prioritize the conservation of ecosystems (communities of organisms and their habitats) in the landscape for more than 20 years. The US Forest Service used the same tool to determine the priority ecosystems in the George Washington National Forest, identify the threats to those systems and develop a plan to maintain or restore their health.
  • Over the past two centuries, overharvesting, invasive pests and pathogens, fire suppression, road construction and acid deposition have altered the forest’s landscape. The Conservancy, through a partnership with the Forest Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior, provided tools that help conservationists figure out what a landscape looked like before European settlers arrived. That information is important for understanding the role natural processes play in maintaining biodiversity and how we can begin to restore these altered systems to a more natural state.
  • Particular areas in the forest may be better able to withstand climate change than other areas, providing refuge for wildlife and plant species. The Conservancy helped determine where those areas, or natural strongholds, are in the central and northern Appalachians. Many of those natural strongholds are among the designations referenced in the plan: wilderness study areas, national scenic areas and remote backcountry.
  • The plan includes a goal to conduct more controlled burns, which are important in maintaining the health of the pine and oak forests that depend on natural fire to thrive. The Conservancy advocated for additional burns and will continue to help the Forest Service conduct those on the ground to achieve the new goal.

Article by The Nature Conservancy.