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

Nantahala Mountains Conservation Area

Conservation Areas: Ash Cove, Cheoah Bald, Tusquitee Bald, Boteler Peak, Southern Nantahala Wilderness Extensions, Tellico Bald, Wesser Bald, Piercy Mountain Range, Siler Bald, Alarka Laurel

Steeped in history, lavish in its wildlife and scenic beauty, the Nantahala Mountains Conservation Area is a priority for permanent protection. Its unprotected wildlands top 107,000 acres and nearly another 25,000 acres are safely within the Southern Nantahala Wilderness.

Of the magnificent mountain ranges that run perpendicular to the Appalachian chain, the “transverse” ranges that form the spine of the Blue Ridge, the Nantahala Mountains are the southernmost. They lie in northeast Georgia and southwest North Carolina, extending north from the state line for 25 miles to Lake Fontana. As we delineate the broader conservation area, it includes the Cowee Range just to the east.

Two of the South’s best-known rivers drain the area–the Nantahala River to the west and the Little Tennessee to the east. Peaks of 5,000 feet are common along the Nantahala Range and one, Standing Indian, reaches to 5,499 feet. The Southern Nantahala Wilderness Area perches on the area’s high southern rim, looking into the expansive semicircle of Standing Indian Basin in Georgia, the headwaters of the Tallulah River.

Siler Bald. Photo by Ralph Preston

A number of attributes converge to give this region an exceptional inventory of old-growth forests. Its soil is rich, moisture is plentiful, the elevation high. The result was logs of such size and quantity that at the turn of the last century, even when virgin timber was the rule and not the exception, many came from some distance just to look–something akin to going to see the elephant in that simpler time.

For all the old-growth that came out of the forests of the Nantahala region, much remains. Recent field surveys have found nearly 20,000 acres of old-growth forests, mainly surviving because steep slopes made them difficult or impossible to reach. There may well be that much more yet to be surveyed.

Other natural elements in the region are equally impressive, including its aquatic systems. The Little Tennessee River’s middle and upper reaches comprise an aquatic diversity area considered unique in the Blue Ridge, because in modern times no species are known to have been extirpated. Several streams are recognized as critical refugia. They include Betty Creek, with one of the region’s healthiest brook trout populations, and Cowee Creek ranked high for its biotic integrity, a standard that considers the biological completeness of a system.

Around half the Nantahala Mountains’ area is ranked as a biological hotspot, but some experts believe that understates the case: because of the terrain, many areas have been inaccessible to biologists for wider surveys. Among habitats the region sustains are those for yellowbellied sapsuckers, golden-crowned kinglets, Appalachian cottontails, over 30 locally and globally rare plants and other species of conservation interest.

Judaculla Rock, a Native American petroglyph site located on Caney Fork of the Tuckasegee River.

The area’s human history is as diverse and layered as its natural history. The largest mountain Cherokee town ever built, Cowee, stood in the Little Tennessee River Valley which also served over the centuries–perhaps dating to pre-Columbian days–as the main trade route from the coast to the Tennessee Valley.

Though we describe many of the constituent parts of the Nantahala Mountains Conservation Area below as individual Mountain Treasures, it is important to remember that in many cases they adjoin one another, share important values and together provide the connectivity so important to natural diversity.

Siler Bald photo by Ralph Preston North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures

 

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