Those of us fortunate enough to live in one of the 18 counties containing the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests are not surprised that others want to live here too, but we may be surprised by their numbers. Between the year 2000 and 2030, the population of these counties is expected to increase by 30 percent.
Across the entire state of North Carolina, the increase will be even greater: an estimated 52.5 percent. More people will demand more of everything–building sites, roads, schools, businesses, shopping, and recreational facilities, both off and on the national forests. Americans have a penchant for fleeing metropolitan areas for bucolic settings, then cluttering them with the full range of services and conveniences they so pointedly left behind.
All of that means more stress on our national forests, already struggling with the other serious pressures outlined in this section. According to the U.S. Forest Service report National Forests on the Edge (2007), the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest ranks fourth in the nation for development threats around its perimeter.
A recent example of what a burgeoning population portends is the controversial plan to build Interstate 3 (I-3) and the so-called Corridor K. Both roads, as proposed, would slash through some of the last remaining wild places in the Southern Appalachians.
I-3 would be a four-lane highway running from Savannah, Georgia, to Knoxville, Tennessee. The dollar cost is high: an estimated $25 million per mile. The environmental cost is greatly higher, probably incalculable. Most obviously, massive earthmoving would send tons of muddy runoff into local water supplies. Further, an I-3 would serve as a more direct route for the transport of radioactive materials across the South with all the attendant human health and safety implications of that enterprise.
Opposition to I-3 may have derailed it temporarily, but Corridor K could well take its place. And a devious place it is. Corridor K would link Chattanooga with Asheville and would by itself be a good deal less damaging project. But the worrisome question is whether it will remain by itself or whether it will be only the beginning in an incremental scheme to achieve an I-3 roadway a bite at a time. If Corridor K were completed, so too would be one stretch of what could still become I-3. Other equally innocent-seeming “corridors” could eventually complete the whole.
Development on private land is, of course, beyond the reach of the new forest plans the Forest Service will soon be writing. But the two–private development and public land management–are far from unconnected. A principal role of our national forests and other public lands is to provide and to protect precisely those things that are already in short supply on nearby private lands and sure to dwindle further as population pressure increases. Those things are often called “ecosystem services” and they include clear air and water, fish and wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and a refuge of sorts for species with nowhere else to go.
As those elements decline on private land, they become even more valuable on our public lands. That simple fact sharpens considerably the importance of making wise decisions for the management of our national forests. It will be prudent to consider the development of a sensible new forest plan for the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forests as a hedge against the massive development pressures expected in Western North Carolina and other areas of the Southern Appalachians.