Biologist and ecologist Robert Zahner (1923-2007) was born in Summerville, S.C., and grew up in Atlanta. But his adopted “spiritual home” was the elevated plateau on the southeastern cusp of the Blue Ridge where Highlands is situated.
Through the years, the Highlands Plateau has attracted some of this nation’s finest naturalists, biologists, ornithologists and ecologists, starting with the French botanical explorer Andre Michaux during the late 18th century. But the name attached to the region today as much as any other is Bob Zahner’s. Unlike most of the others, he didn’t just pass through or come for a season of field studies. Along with his wife, fellow biologist and constant companion, Glenda, he came to stay.
Even in condensed summary, Zahner’s professional career was distinguished. After serving in the U.S. Army air corps during World War II, he received his bachelor’s (botany), master’s (forestry) and Ph.D. (Ecology) degrees from Duke University. From 1953-1959, he was a research scientist for the U.S. Forest Service. From 1959-1974, he was a professor of forest botany and ecology at the University of Michigan. From 1974-1979, he was a self-employed consultant in conservation biology in Highlands. From 1980-1990, he was a professor of forest ecology at Clemson University. And from 1990-1999, he was again a self-employed consultant in conservation biology based in Highlands.
Bob Zahner was fun to be with. He was a ready source of precise information imparted in a low-key manner, but he was also a good listener. He saw the natural world through scientifically trained eyes and the eyes of a nature enthusiast.
Requested to do so, Glenda Zahner provided these “Biographical Notes on Bob Zahner”:
“Bob grew up as a rich kid in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. His family spent summers in Highlands, at their cabin on Lake Sequoia, and, later on, on Billy Cabin Mountain. Bob considered Highlands his true home; his spiritual home; a refuge from Atlanta society; with freedom to be himself and be close to nature. He loved hiking in the mountains and the forests. This is where he got his inspiration to become a forest ecologist.
“For as long as I can remember, Bob always said he wanted to retire to Highlands; to the little cabin he built after being discharged from the army air corps while awaiting admission to Duke University on the G.I. Bill.
“Bob’s ‘retirement’ came much sooner than either of us expected. In 1973 his parents decided to give the Highlands property to Bob and his brother, since they felt we were already ‘buying’ his inheritance by paying the taxes and making the mortgage payments.
“Bob was at the peak of his academic career: chairman of the forestry department, with a very productive teaching and research program and a possible candidate for dean of the School of Natural Resources. However, he was unhappy about having more and more administrative duties leaving him less time for the research and teaching that he loved and did so well.
“Within a week after we became owners of the property in Highlands, Bob resigned his position at the University of Michigan and we prepared to make Highlands our full-time residence. Friends, family and colleagues were stunned by our decision. We, ourselves, never struggled with the decision. It was as though we were ‘called’ there, but didn’t yet know why or for what purpose.
“Soon after we arrived we discovered that destructive forces were at work in the forests that Bob loved. Fifty years after the Weeks Act was passed, our National Forest was ripe again for cutting, and the clear-cuts were enormous. (It seems the timber industry was telling Congress and the forest service how much timber it wanted and that, rather than “best management practices” determined the quota.) It was totally unsustainable, and for Bob, it was heartbreaking to see what was happening in the Nantahala National Forest surrounding Highlands. From every mountaintop huge clear-cuts could be seen like pockmarks on the landscape throughout the national forest. On the ground it was devastating ....
“We decided to form a local ‘watchdog’ group to monitor forest service publication of planned timber sales on the Highlands district. This group became the Highlands Chapter of the Western North Carolina Alliance, and worked diligently on the ‘Cut the Clear-cutting’ campaign.
“Bob eschewed confrontation, but he excelled in diplomacy and had a real talent for finding common ground. He was effective in dealing with the forest service because he treated everyone with respect, including those with whom he disagreed, and he had the weight of good sound science behind him. He pointed out that to the timber industry, the term ‘sustainability’ meant sustainable timber harvest, while, to the environmental community, it refers to sustainable forest ecosystems . . .
“Bob introduced the term ‘benign neglect’ as a forest management tool, arguing that the value of a live tree on the stump continues to increase with age as it functions within the ecosystem, providing habitat, sequestering carbon and adding biomass. And he wrote a significant paper defining the characteristics of ‘old growth,’ which has been of immense help in determining stands that are in need of protection.
“Bob’s love for the land was not limited to the forest. He loved Highlands like he was a native son, which motivated him to write a book, The Mountain At The End Of The Trail, about the relationship between the town of Highlands and the iconic mountain that figures so prominently in the town’s history.
“The book is also about Bob’s own relationship with the mountain. Bob was a scientist of international repute, with scores of scientific peer-reviewed research publications to his credit. His first attempt at writing was dry, and empirical in style. I advised him to start all over and write from his heart, and the next draft was heartfelt and personal, even passionate.”
The Mountain at the End of the Trail: A History of Whiteside Mountain is both scientific and personal, a graceful blend of restrained yet “heartfelt” nature writing.