New wilderness area near Highlands unlikelyWritten by Quintin Ellison
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The situation doesn’t look promising for the formation of a new wilderness area in the Nantahala National Forest, the dream child of Brent Martin, the Sylva-based Southern Appalachian program director for The Wilderness Society.
Martin envisioned easy political passage of the Bob Zahner Wilderness Area. He now acknowledges that his early optimism was misplaced. This veteran environmentalist remains puzzled, however, as to what exactly — politically speaking — happened to what he initially considered a “no-brainer.”
U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, has promised to support the designation, but on this condition: the Macon County Board of Commissioners must first pass a resolution of support. That, however, isn’t likely to happen when the five-man board meets Feb. 8, with a vote for or against the resolution set to take place.
Nor is the vote breaking down along predictable party lines — Democrats for the proposal and Republicans against. In fact, the only certain “yes” vote at this point would be cast by a Republican — Board Chairman Brian McClellan, who represents the Highlands district near where the new Bob Zahner Wilderness Area would be carved out.
A survey of commissioners taken last week by The Smoky Mountain News revealed two flatly against the proposal: Democrat Ronnie Beale and Republican Ron Haven. Two say they are still studying the issue but have reservations about whether it deserves their support: Democrat Bobby Kuppers and Republican Kevin Corbin.
What’s at stake
Martin wants to see more wilderness areas designated in North Carolina. He believes in wilderness, he loves the idea of wilderness, and he makes no bones about his commitment to the concept of permanently protecting special areas in these mountains by having them designated wilderness.
A protected, designated wilderness rules out certain uses. Logging, of course. But also machines such as chainsaws and vehicles can’t be used, the biggest sticking point for new Macon County Commissioner Haven.
“There are residences near there,” he said. “What if there is a fire?”
Martin also has run up against fears that a road through the Overflow Wilderness Study Area might eventually be closed to vehicular use. This even though, he said, any local resolution by commissioners and legislation by Congress would specifically spell out that the road would remain open.
The Wilderness Society representative has gotten plenty of support for the concept, but probably not enough to overweigh a thumb’s down from county commissioners. Voting yes to the idea: The Highlands Town Board, Highlands Biological Station, Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust, Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance, Western North Carolina Alliance and the N.C. Bartram Trail Society, among others.
So, what happened?
That’s hard to pinpoint, frankly. Martin himself is unsure. In nearby Buncombe County, commissioners there supported his proposal to change the 2,890-acre Craggy Mountains Wilderness Study Area to designated Wilderness without so much as a murmur of protest.
• Did Martin underestimate the power of the word “wilderness” in the farthest reaches of Western North Carolina, where many natives remain emotionally bruised by the forced exodus of residents during the formation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — and, during World War II, by the creation of Fontana Lake in Swain and Graham counties and Lake Glenville in southern Jackson County?
• Did a forest service recalcitrant to more stipulations placed on forest-health management throw a monkey wrench in the works by raising questions about what a wilderness designation might really mean?
• Or, is the formation of a designated wilderness area simply unnecessary, as several of the commissioners indicate they believe to be the case, because the acres being eyed already have protection as a wilderness study area? As a study area, no road building and no timber management now.
Whatever the truth, Macon County Commission Chairman McClellan wants the issue resolved, and soon. He is more worried about what the $3.7 billion projected state budget shortfall might do to his county.
“We just need to make some kind of decision and move forward,” McClellan said.
Nuts and bolts
What: The 3,200-acre Overflow Wilderness Study Area southwest of Highlands would be designated the Bob Zahner Wilderness Area. The area is accessible by N.C. 106, Forest Service Road 79 (1.79 miles, accesses the popular Glen Falls trailhead), and the Bartram Trail.
The area contains the headwaters of the West Fork of Overflow Creek and ranges from 2,500 feet to 4,000 feet in elevation. It includes upland oak forest, with some cove hardwoods and white pine, according to the U.S. Forest Service, with most timber stands 60 to 80 years old. There is also old-growth forest in the area, conservations say. Heavy recreational use of the area includes fishing, hiking, camping and backpacking.
Why: The name suggested is in honor of the late Highlands conservationist Bob Zahner. The purpose is to protect this area permanently from logging and any kind of future development.
How: A Wilderness designation would require approval by the U.S. Congress, via legislation introduced by Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville. He wants Macon County commissioners’ OK, however, before doing so.
1979: During the nationwide Roadless Area Review, the Overflow Area was recommended for “further planning.” This meant that additional review was necessary before the Forest Service could recommend the Overflow Area be designated wilderness.
1984: The N.C. Wilderness Act designated the Overflow Area as a Wilderness Study Area. This meant the Forest Service should conduct a wilderness study and make a recommendation to Congress.
1987: The Forest Land Management Plan for the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests recommended the area not be designated a wilderness Area. Usage directions were for semi-primitive, non-motorized recreation.
1991: A bill introduced by then U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor would have released the Overflow Area from the designation as a wilderness study area, but did not make it out of committee.
Source: U.S. Forest Service