Conservation Areas: Craggy Mountains (Big Ivy), Black Mountains, Jarrett Creek, Mackey Mountain
Even in the Southern Appalachians, generally regarded as the nation’s most biologically significant region, the Black Mountains Conservation Area of western North Carolina stands out as exceptional.
As we define the conservation area, it includes the Black Mountains themselves, the Craggy Mountains and mountains on the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment. The conservation area combines a wealth of unfragmented roadless areas, high peaks and a multitude of clear, pure streams that drain its intersecting ridges.
These factors combine to provide a splendid array of habitat types that support black bears and neotropical birds and such a diverse assortment of other plants and animals that the Black Mountain Conservation Area is essentially one big biological hotspot.
High mountain ridges dominate the Black Mountains, making the range the highest east of the Rockies. Mt. Mitchell is the highest peak in the Black Mountains at 6,684 feet, and is also the highest in the East. Indeed, six Black Mountain peaks rank among the 10 highest peaks east of the Mississippi River. This elevation gives the region a variety of habitats very similar to some that occur hundreds of miles north in Canada.
Its aquatic resources are equally remarkable. The Catawba River rises in the Black Mountains before flowing out onto the Piedmont. The South Toe Critical Aquatic Refuge and the headwaters of the Nolichucky River Aquatic Diversity Area are in the Black Mountains.
Unfortunately, very little of the Black Mountain Conservation Area enjoys permanent protection. Mt. Mitchell anchors a state park of around 2,500 acres and Blue Ridge Parkway lands total another 6,631 acres. But both of these are managed for the twin purposes of habitat protection and recreation, not for natural qualities and wildland values. Only within the 1,300 acres of two Forest Service research natural areas does this sort of permanent protection exist on this part of the Pisgah National Forest.
Much qualifies for such protection. Deserving but unprotected wild areas include five Mountain Treasures areas: the Craggy Mountains, 13,000 acres; the Black Mountains, 14,000 acres; Jarrett Creek, 10,000 acres; Mackey Mountain, 14,000 acres; and, Woods Mountain, 11,000 acres. There is a smaller inventoried roadless area within each of the five and the Craggy Mountains unit includes a wilderness study area. The Forest Service has recommended that study area be designated wilderness but Congress has yet to do so.
Conservation easements brighten the picture somewhat. The Asheville watershed, owned by the city of Asheville, extends across 21,000 acres, 17,000 acres of which are covered by a conservation easement. That safeguards water quality, certainly, but also operates to safeguard wildlife habitat and to provide connectivity with adjacent conservation lands.
Insect infestation and acid rain have taken their toll in the region, especially on the spruce and fir stands at higher elevations (which appear black from a distance and give the mountains their name). Still, the conservation area’s old growth resources are impressive. The Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition has identified 19,712 acres of old-growth, much of it in large tracts, several of which exceed 1,000 acres. This ranks the Black Mountains Conservation Area as one of the most significant old-growth reserves in the Southern Appalachians.
The Black Mountains are rooted in both history and prehistory. The Cherokee may have settled the area as long ago as 10,000 years. Some present area residents can trace their lines in this place back many generations. Many continue to use the landscape as their ancestors did, hunting, fishing, and gathering herbs and other plants.