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

Roadless Areas and Wilderness

A first definition of wilderness is roadlessness. But the connection between roadless areas and formally protected wilderness goes a good deal deeper than that. In the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Congress directed the Secretaries of the Interior and of Agriculture to review the lands under their jurisdiction for wilderness suitability and to recommend to the President, and he to the Congress, which areas merited permanent protection.

So in 1972 the Forest Service launched what it called the RARE process (for Roadless Area Review and Evaluation) starting with 1,149 potential areas containing 56 million acres. When the agency called the process complete in the Fall of 1973, it designated a scant 274 wilderness study areas totaling 12.3 million acres across the forest system. The flaws in the process were clear to conservationists who demanded that it be redone. In particular, they argued that the analysis gave especially short shrift to deserving areas in the national grasslands and in the forest lands of the Eastern U.S.

In response, the agency initiated RARE II. When that review was completed in 1979 the agency identified 2,919 areas, around 62 million acres, as lands having wilderness characteristics, a far cry from the findings of the earlier review. Of these, the Forest Service recommended wilderness designation on 15 million acres, called for further planning consideration for 11 million acres and proposed non-wilderness management for the remaining 36 million acres. Though it was a vast improvement over the original RARE, conservationists still found much to fault in RARE II. And when forest wilderness legislation came up for consideration in the years following, the Congress went beyond the agency recommendations more often than not in designating wilderness.

The RARE II review, then, established something of a starting point, at least for future wilderness protection efforts on national forests.

In North Carolina, the RARE II inventory identified over 200,000 roadless acres: 90,770 on the Nantahala National Forest, 76,668 on the Pisgah, 27,845 on the Croatan and 4,970 on the Uwharrie.

Roadless Areas Then and Now

North Carolina’s forests contain around 35 confirmed roadless areas, as the Forest Service defines the term: an area with no more than a half mile of improved road per 1,000 acres. Our state’s roadless areas have changed in the years since RARE II. In many cases this loss has been due to road building within RARE II areas, and with far too few exceptions, the changes have been losses, some of them major ones. Today’s Roadless Inventory stands at 178,000 acres.

To understand our current roadless acreage, several factors must be considered: wilderness designations in 1984 (after RARE II); areas changing names; the fact that there are no GIS coverages (or good maps) of the RARE II areas. Cheoah Bald is a good example of one of the largest roadless areas in the region being reduced from its original acreage of over 20,000 acres to less than 8,000 acres due to the building of new roads. Roadless acreage has slightly increased because the roadless inventory of the 1990s was performed with more public oversight and input than RARE II. On the other hand we have lost RARE II acreage because there has been a systematic attempt to whittle away these areas with new roads.

Nantahala National Forest ….. RARE II ….. Today

  • Cheoah Bald ….. 21,434 ….. 7,810
  • Tusquitee Bald ….. 16,860 ….. 13,791
  • Boteler ….. 12,445 ….. 4,221
  • Fishhawk Mountain ….. 4,890 acres ….. 0
  • Snowbird ….. 5,490 acres ….. 8,504
  • Wesser Bald ….. 0 ….. 4,094

Pisgah National Forest ….. RARE II ….. Today

  • Nolichucky ….. 3,920 acres ….. 0
  • Upper Wilson ….. 6,530 acres ….. 4,990
  • Wildcat ….. 7,120 acres ….. 0
  • Craggy Mountain ….. 2,295 acres ….. 2,659
  • Harper Creek ….. 7,138 acres ….. 7,351
  • Lost Cove ….. 5,708 acres ….. 5,954
  • Bald Mountain (Big Creek) ….. 4,200 ….. 12,017
  • Mackey Mountain ….. 0 ….. 5,934
  • Jarrett Creek ….. 0 ….. 7,500
  • Woods Mountain ….. 0 ….. 9,606

Where Have They Gone?

An area’s inclusion in the Forest Service’s roadless area inventory does not necessarily mean that the agency will manage it in such a way as to protect its wild, natural values or that all management activities will end. Some management plans and categories allow for roadless areas to remain undisturbed; others allow for resource utilization. Much of that activity can alter a roadless area’s conditions such that some or all of it no longer meets roadless area criteria. This list of such activities is a long one:

• mining and prospecting with heavy earth-moving equipment;
• planting of non-native vegetation on more than 15 percent of the area;
• road building or rebuilding that results in more than a half mile of road per 1,000 acres;
• timber harvesting that results in trees less than 10 years old in more than 20 percent of the area;
• erecting buildings or other structures;
• building transmission lines, pipelines or utility corridors with cleared rights-of-way;
• creating major recreational areas such as campgrounds, visitor centers or resorts;
• changing recreational use from non-motorized to motorized;
• reclassifying old temporary roads and undrivable “wood” roads abandoned decades ago to system roads; and
• creating high-standard surfaced trails.

The sequence, then, begins to take shape. Roadless areas are the universe of the likeliest new wilderness areas–places that meet the threshold test for wilderness suitability. Their loss diminishes that universe and prospects for additional wilderness in the years ahead. Forest plans set the management direction for our national forests, including roadless area treatment, management and protection, for the next 15 years and beyond. How valuable roadless areas fare over that period depends directly on the forest plan. So does our North Carolina wilderness future.

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