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

The Lands Nobody Wanted

The first eastern National Forest tract. Photo courtesy of the Curtis collection

At the turn of the 20th century, the lands that now make up the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest had been largely cut down by timber companies and left in a poor and degraded condition. Unlike the American West, the East had no National Forest system, as it lacked a large public land base to draw from to create such a system.

National Forests in the West were created from lands that the U.S. government had been systematically disposing of to speculators, railroad companies, and individuals for many years, a system that changed only after the prospect of a timber famine.  The movement to create National Forests in the East was related, but resulted largely from the problems that cut-over timber land were creating for neighboring communities from wildfires, erosion, and flooding.

The passage of the Weeks Act in 1911 allowed the U.S. Forest Service to begin the process of acquiring land in the East, and the creation of the Cherokee Purchase Unit in 1912 (from which the Nantahala-Pisgah would be birthed) resulted in one of the first National Forest land purchases in the East, the 8,000-acre Curtis Creek tract near Old Fort in the Black Mountains.

At this time, the forests of western North Carolina had been mainly cut over by large timber companies such as Champion Fiber, Ritter Lumber, Gennett Lumber, Whiting Manufacturing, and others, and many of these companies were more than willing to sell these lands nobody wanted,  as they were referred to at the time, to the U.S. Forest Service for somewhere between three and ten dollars an acre, depending on the condition of the land.

The movement for such a forest in western North Carolina had begun over a decade earlier. In 1892, Charles S. Sargent, director of the first forest census of the United States, published a plan for a Southern Appalachian forest reserve in the influential journal, Garden and Forest. During that same period Joseph A. Holmes, State Geologist of North Carolina, recommended the establishment of a forest reserve in the North Carolina mountains.

Also significant during this time were the North Carolina General Assembly and the North Carolina Press Association, which began to emerge as supporters of a national park in the western part of the state. In 1894 the press association petitioned Congress for the establishment of such a park.

In 1899, former Secretary of State William R. Day of Ohio was on a fishing trip in western North Carolina with his friend, Asheville physician Dr. Chase P. Ambler. At Ambler s urging, a Parks and Forestry Committee was organized by the Asheville Board of Trade. In November of 1899 a meeting was held at the old Battery Park Hotel in Asheville where the group was renamed the Appalachian National Park Association. Ambler, to whom credit is given for subsequent accomplishments of the group, was named secretary.

In 1900 there followed a joint survey by the U.S. Bureau of Forestry and the Geological Survey of about 9,600,000 acres of forest land to determine its suitability as a national forest reserve. In 1903 the Appalachian National Park Association was renamed the Appalachian National Forest Reserve Association. Within two years the association had disbanded, but in 1905 the notion of a national park and the effort to establish forest reserves in the East and in the Appalachian region was taken up by the American Forestry Association (AFA).

Acquisitions began in earnest following the establishment of the Nantahala-Pisgah, and after Curtis Creek several large acquisitions were made. In 1915 nearly 87,000 acres were sold by Edith Vanderbilt to the National Forest Service following the early death of her husband. This became the core of the emerging Pisgah National Forest.

Twenty-four thousand acres of land on Big Snowbird, West Buffalo, and Big and Little Santeetlah Creeks known as the Olmsted Tracts were seized from the Olmsted family by the Federal Government for back taxes. Ritter Lumber sold thousands of acres they owned in the area, now known as Rainbow Springs and Standing Indian in the Nantahala National Forest, as did Gennett Lumber. Champion Lumber sold thousands of clear-cut acres, some of what is now the Shining Rock and Middle Prong Wilderness areas.

Thousands more acres were bought throughout the thirties and forties, but acquisitions slowed following World War II. The Forest Service became less concerned with acquisitions, and more concerned with providing timber for a rapidly expanding American economy. Not until legislation was passed for the Land and Water Conservation Fund during the Kennedy administration did the Forest Service receive appropriation dollars for National Forest acquisitions.

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