North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures
Help Protect the Vulnerable Wildlands of the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests

Balsam Mountains Conservation Area

Conservation Areas: Middle Prong Extension, Shining Rock Wilderness Extension, South Mills River, Laurel Mountain, Daniel Ridge, Cedar Rock Mountain

The Balsam Mountain Conservation Area in the Pisgah National Forest comprises a very long ridge that curves from a bit southwest of Asheville, NC, to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the main Unaka Mountain Range.

Much of the Pisgah was once part of George W. Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate. Within the forest is the Cradle of Forestry, which Congress designated as a 6,500-acre historical site to mark the work of Vanderbilt’s forester, Gifford Pinchot. He is considered to be the father of modern forestry and later became the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

The ridge of the Balsam Mountains is the longest of the cross-ridges in the Southern Appalachians. It soars to over 6,500 feet at the summit of Richland Balsam. Broad mountain slopes fall on both sides of the main ridge. The Blue Ridge Parkway tracks much of the main ridge’s length.

Though destructive logging and consequent fires damaged the original forest, there are still remnants of old-growth in the region. The Southern Appalachian Assessment found over 30,000 acres of old-growth in the area and the Western North Carolina Alliance found almost 3,000 acres of verified old-growth in the Balsams, along with 68 candidate old-growth sites and over 1,300 acres that are suitable for recovery.

Mt. Pisgah at 12 noon. Photo and rendering by Lamar Marshall

Two designated wilderness areas, the Shining Rock and the Middle Prong (to both of which we propose significant additions, totaling over 6,400 acres) grace the Balsams and speak to their wildness. The two wildernesses adjoin one another, split only by a single road roughly in the center of the ridge’s open, north-facing arc. Within the Shining Rock Wilderness is 6,030-foot Cold Mountain. Though there are several higher peaks in the wilderness, none is better known than Cold Mountain, thanks to the best-selling book of the same name.

Much of the Balsam Mountains falls within a biological hotspot and the range generally is known for a diversity of habitats and communities, including cove hardwoods, grassy balds, spruce-fir forests, important bog complexes and boulder fields with the specialized communities they support.

Cold Mountain. Photo and rendering by Lamar Marshall.

The Balsam Mountains give rise to three important rivers-the Pigeon, the French Broad and the Tuckasegee, a major fork of the Little Tennessee. The first defense for clean, productive rivers is careful protection of their headwaters.
Development pressure intrudes upon the Balsams from every direction and there are considerable opportunities to acquire valuable natural areas through purchases or to protect them through conservation easements. As with so many other important wild areas in North Carolina though, the first important step is to ensure that the next forest plan proposes sensible management of these important public lands.

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