Conservations Areas: Bald Mountains, Bluff Mountain, Pigeon River Gorge
Bald Mountains is the name of both an individual Mountain Treasure and of the larger conservation area it anchors. Both the conservation area and the Mountain Treasure lie on both sides of the ridge that separates Tennessee and North Carolina. This region forms part of the western flank of the southern Blue Ridge that runs northeast from the Smoky Mountains.The Bald Mountains are made up of ridges that trend from the southwest to the northeast.
Taken together, North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest and Tennessee’s Cherokee account for more than 200,000 acres in the conservation area. While public ownership is fairly well consolidated at the southwestern end of the Balds, ownerships are more fractured on the northeast.
There are three distinct North Carolina wildlands areas in this larger conservation area: Bluff Mountain, the Bald Mountains and the Pigeon River Gorge. But it is important to remember that nearly every wild area on the North Carolina side is matched by one on the Tennessee side. In a perfect–or even sensible–world, they would be dealt with as what they are: contiguous, continuous wild areas, regardless of jurisdictional boundaries.
The potential for landscape-level conservation in the Bald Mountains is exceptional. It is also vital. The area constitutes the main corridor connecting wildlife populations in the Smoky Mountains to those further north. Black bears in particular benefit by these connections. Operating against that connectivity today are an interstate highway and assorted land ownerships. Neither problem is insoluble. Careful acquisition of critical private lands can reduce the fragmentation; wildlife overpasses, underpasses or both can encourage crossing by wildlife and avert the carnage that now often results.
At least 22 biological hotspots of various sizes dot the Bald Mountains Conservation Area. Smaller ones support important localized populations, larger ones a variety of species in a variety of habitat types. Several rare species of both plants and animals benefit from these habitats, including the peregrine falcon.
There are no designated wilderness areas on the North Carolina side of the Bald Mountains, but the Sampson Mountain Wilderness in Tennessee could be connected to a number of other wild areas on both sides of the state line through protection of several Mountain Treasures.
With several areas remaining to be inventoried, 4,300 acres of old-growth forest have been documented on the North Carolina side of the Bald Mountains. Hot spots for old-growth include the Bald Mountain Roadless Area and the Pigeon River Gorge.
The Appalachian Trail winds its way, mostly along the crest of the ridge, along the length of the Bald Mountains. Side trails drop down from the ridge into stream valleys, and a number of loop routes facilitate exploration of the area.