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

Unicoi Mountains Conservation Area

Conservation Areas: Unicoi Mountains Conservation Area, Unicoi Mountains (NC), Upper Bald River Wilderness Study Area (TN), Snowbird Creek – Lower, Snowbird (NC), Sycamore Creek (TN), Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Extensions, Santeetlah Headwaters

The Unicoi Mountains lie to the southwest of Great Smoky Mountain National Park and boast natural and scenic values that rival those of its better-known neighbor. The Tennessee-North Carolina state line splits the range. Lands on the Tennessee side fall within the Cherokee National Forest, those on the North Carolina side within the Nantahala National Forest.

The Unicoi Mountains name designates both this large landscape area as well as a specific area. The broader area includes 400,000 acres of public land in the two national forests. And they function as a single, large conservation area that should be treated as such. Trails in the area carry visitors to places as remote and unspoiled as any in the Eastern U.S.

The conservation area we propose is an important refuge for a range of species–black bears among them–that rely on its clear streams, healthy, surprisingly intact forests and natural processes that operate here much as they always have. The Unicoi Mountains Conservation area enjoys another advantage: Forest Service ownership is more consolidated than in other areas and suffers less from the diverse ownership patterns that often complicate conservation.

Because of its rugged, remote–and thus largely unroaded and undeveloped–character, significant portions of the Unicoi Mountains Conservation Area have never been logged or have been logged only once and have since had nearly a century to recover. Within this large native forest are intact stands of old-growth: over 8,000 acres have been inventoried in the Nantahala National Forest.

The Unicoi (Unaka) or White Mountains  were so named by the Cherokees because of the winter snows on these high places. This view is looking east from Beech Gap on the Cherohala Skyway toward Beaverdam Bald. Photo by Lamar Marshall

An Invaluable Reservoir for Restoration

This area offers a promising anchor for recovery of the entire ecosystem, given the fact that the Unicoi Mountains are considered a “biological hotspot,” defined as an area “characterized by high biological diversity and populations of rare species.” It is crucial territory for wide-ranging black bears and a vital nursery for neotropical migratory birds.

A number of rare species–plants, amphibians, fish and mammals–thrive and depend on the high precipitation in the Unicoi Mountains; precipitation at the highest peaks averages over 90″ annually, making it one of the wettest mountain ranges in the Southern Blue Ridge along with the Highlands Plateau and the Southern Nantahalas. The voluminous precipitation provides ample habitat for rare bryophytes and salamanders, including the endemic Junalaska salamander found nowhere else.

Citico Creek, which flows from the center of the Unicoi Mountains complex, is a critical aquatic refuge watershed, sheltering several rare species, such as the yellowfin madtom and the smoky madtom. Other healthy streams, such as Slickrock Creek and Snowbird Creek, offer important habitat to native trout and other species.

From the W.G. Williams Army map of 1837

The Unicoi Mountains have a vibrant history of both Native American and early European settlement and relics of both periods abound in the area.

The values of the Unicoi Mountains Conservation Area extend far beyond its boundaries. Its protection would connect it with other important areas, some already protected as wilderness but with truncated boundaries that leave them vulnerable. Together, these lands offer a reservoir of species richness and room enough to allow it to spread into areas from which it has disappeared.

Image: Unicoi or Unaka Mountains were from the Cherokee word for “White Mountains.” The red lines are trails and roads within the Cherokee country. The Unaka Road is the Unicoi Turnpike, a part of the Great Trading Path from Charles Town, South Carolina and used extensively in the deerskin and fur trade from the early 1700s. The road noted in 1837 as “from Tellico Iron Works” is the Trading Path from the Overhills to the Valley Towns used by the Cherokees as a shortcut from the Valley Towns. The old trail followed Hanging Dog and Beaverdam Creeks up and over the main Unicoi ridge and Waucheesi Mountain, thence to Tellico Plains. The mountains were a last refuge of the Cherokees at the time of Removal.  The Snowbird area is still the homeplace for many Indians who hid out and refused to go West, leaving their beloved mountains.
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