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

The Southern Appalachian Ecosystem

Pink Lady Slipper. photo by Lamar Marshall

The Appalachian Mountain chain is a natural marvel running from Quebec south 1,500 miles to Alabama.  It is impressive along its length, but it is in the Southern Appalachians that the chain is at its most scenically spectacular and biologically rich.

These ancient, rugged mountains range in elevation up to Mt. Mitchell’s 6,684-foot summit.  In places they receive 90 inches of rainfall per year.  That is a recipe for species richness and the Southern Appalachians harbor an astonishing range of plant and animal life. Over 2,000 kinds of plants thrive here, including over 130 species of trees–more than are found in all of Europe.  The region boasts 700 vertebrate species, among them 50 varieties of salamanders, more than in any area of comparable size on the planet, and around 150 species of nesting birds. Thousands of invertebrate species contribute to the region’s remarkable natural life.

The superlatives do not end here, though. The Southern Appalachians, which stretch across parts of five states from Georgia to Virginia, contain the greatest concentration of federal public land and the largest remaining expanses of wilderness in the Eastern United States.  North Carolina’s Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests alone comprise over a million acres of the region’s 3.7 million-acre federal public estate. The balance is found in two important units of the National Park System–the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park–and in its four other national forests: the Cherokee in Tennessee, the Chattahoochee in Georgia, the Sumter in South Carolina and the Jefferson in Virginia.

Not surprisingly, the Southern Appalachians contain the greatest remaining acreage of old-growth forest in the Eastern U.S.  They offer a range of unusual habitats, such as beech gaps, boulderfield communities, rare high elevation bogs, mountain balds, hardwood coves and spruce-fir stands.

These mountains lie within a day’s drive of upwards of a third of the nation’s people and have become a magnet for outdoor recreation in virtually all its forms: white water boating; hunting and fishing; hiking and camping; bird-watching; and, the search for quiet and solitude.

The famous Appalachian Trail winds through the heart of the region, traversing much of its spectacular high country.  Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most heavily visited in the entire National Park System with over 10 million visitors each year. Visitation to the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests dwarfs that number with around 35 million visitors.

American Ginseng. photo by Lamar Marshall

What brings visitors in ever-increasing numbers to this land? At the threshold, it is the simple fact that it is our public land and is open to the public. For many, it is the opportunity to enjoy the unspoiled scenic beauty and to escape from the pace of life in more developed places into quieter, more natural surroundings. For some, it is secure habitat that sustains wildlife for hunting, angling and simply watching.

Others are drawn by that magical word: wilderness. And that attraction grows. In fact, demand for wilderness recreation is expected to increase steadily in the Nantahala-Pisgah. There is not enough wilderness to meet today’s demands, let alone tomorrow’s. The U.S. Forest Service calculates that demand for wilderness recreation will be double the available opportunities by 2030. Of the one million acres within these two national forests, a scant 66,500 have been designated wilderness, less than 7 percent of the total.

Because of their location within the Southern Appalachian region, the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests are an integral part of the broader ecosystem. Management decisions that affect these two forests must be made with the health of other adjacent federal lands in mind.  Many of the unprotected wildlands we identify in this publication are contiguous to wild areas in other national forests in Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina.

That adjacency–the “connectedness” of which the great conservationist Aldo Leopold spoke–should be the guiding consideration in forest management decisions.  In 2002, the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition published Return the Great Forest: A Conservation Vision for the Southern Appalachian Region.  The book details the fact that the natural areas in our national forests comprise large landscape conservation areas that in many cases transcend the artificial boundaries of state and other agency management schemes.  There are where they are, regardless of jurisdictional maps.

Certainly, those maps serve as useful locators, name tags.  But when they become rigid boundaries for compartmentalized management and parochial thinking they operate to defeat the natural values these connected landscapes serve and are meant to serve. Bureaucracies often can’t seem to see past the lines on maps; black bears and songbirds don’t even know they exist.

It is thus crucial that the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service work together to coordinate planning for their various pieces of this complicated, interdependent web.  State agencies, local governments, citizens and organizations also have a constructive role to play.

Protecting and planning for these landscape conservation areas is our best hope for securing a functioning conservation network in the Southern Appalachians.  Many of these landscape conservation areas, and many of the most significant ones, are either entirely or partially within North Carolina.  If we are to secure a network of conservation lands that endures into the future to guarantee habitat for wildlife and rare species, productive mountain streams and the clean water they provide, and wildland areas that offer solitude, recreation and renewal to humans, we must protect the areas North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures identifies.

The Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests feature some of the finest wild areas in the Southeast. Much has changed in these mountains since Native Americans migrated here thousands of years ago and even more since Europeans first arrived. But much remains in a natural state. Protecting the lands in that condition is our challenge and the subject of this book.

“If your bank account was overdrawn, you wouldn’t keep spending, would you?  Nor should we continue to log and build roads in what precious little remains of eastern wilderness.  This book is a remarkable vision, a blueprint for the survival of a region as we’ve known it.  May our policymakers have the valor and genius to carry it through.  Long live the wild coves and balds, creeks and laurel thickets of the southern Appalachians, an American treasure more precious than gold.”

~ Janisse Ray, author of “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood”

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