That the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in Graham County isn’t what it once was is true — the large hemlocks are dying or dead, victim of the hemlock wooly adelgid, a tiny insect that is changing the landscape of Western North Carolina as profoundly as the chestnut blight once did.
But most of the poplars still tower, more than 100 feet tall and 15- to 20-feet in circumference. And to Graham County native and retired U.S. Forest Service Ranger Marshall McClung, Joyce Kilmer is still a rare and beautiful place.
Despite the loss of giant hemlocks and even some of the giant poplars being broken in storms, the trek to Graham County is well worth the effort, McClung said. Around 40,000 people come each year to Joyce Kilmer to walk along its two loop trails under the towering branches.
People will gather here at the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest on July 30 to celebrate the forest’s 75th anniversary. The keynote speaker at the event will be Joyce Kilmer biographer John Covell.
After Joyce Kilmer was killed in action during World War I, veterans of the Foreign Wars asked the U.S. government to set aside a “fitting stand of trees” to serve as a living memorial to the poet and soldier. Kilmer’s best-known poem was called “Trees.”
Years passed until 1935, when a regional forester wrote the chief of the U.S. Forest Service that the forest that now makes up Joyce Kilmer was one of the “very few remaining tracts of virgin hardwood in the Appalachians ... we ought to buy it to preserve some of the forest original growth in the Appalachians.”
The next year, the U.S. Forest Service bought 13,055 acres for $28 per acre — a steep price for its day. Most of the surrounding land was logged, but the area around Little Santeetlah Creek in Graham County had been spared. It’s logging potential and the value of the giant uncut trees, made the cost higher than most tracts acquired by the forest service.
The upper loop, a three-quarter of a mile trail that swings through Poplar Cove, lives on “as a great example of an old-growth forest,” said Lauren Stull, acting district ranger for the Cheoah/Tusquitee districts of the Nantahala National Forest.
Stull, like McClung, believes Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest remains a unique and beautiful area. In addition to the massive poplar trees, McClung said in more inaccessible areas one can also admire huge basswoods and northern red oaks. Additionally, there are 400 or so Indian graves in the forest, victims of a smallpox epidemic in the 1700s, he said.
Old growth isn’t that easy to define, said Norma Ivey of Franklin, who once worked for the conservation group WNC Alliance as an old-growth expert.
It’s not just about old trees. You are really in search of a complete forest cycle, she said, explaining too that tallness is not necessarily an indicator of old.
“You want to see older trees standing, and downed, and smaller trees coming in,” Ivey said. “A rotation of your forest, a mix of trees for that specific site (by such measures as altitude and available sunlight). You want to see a forest that’s being turned over.”
But when it comes to old and tall, Joyce Kilmer is certainly a crowned jewel.
“The big trees are still very impressive,” said Ivey, who visited Joyce Kilmer again a year or so ago after a many-year absence from the forest. “It’s worth going to see them.”
A day of festivities honoring the 75th anniversary of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest will be held Saturday, July 30. Activities will center around the Rattler Ford Group Camp. Parking attendants will direct traffic, and shuttles will run throughout the day to get people around the event area. Bring a lawn chair.
• Guided tours of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest throughout the day.
• Booths and exhibits by Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards demonstrations of primitive forest tools and care for the land, The Wilderness Society, N.C. Agricultural Extension Service, American Chestnut Foundation, U.S. Forest Service, Partners of the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness, Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians with children’s activities and dances, National Wild Turkey Federation N.C. Forest Service.
• Homecoming for all present and former Cheoah Ranger District employees and volunteers throughout the years at 10 a.m.
• Formal rededication ceremony of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest at 1 p.m. Speakers include U.S. Rep Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville; Principal Chief Michell Hicks, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; Kevin Anton, Alcoa’s chief sustainability officer; and the keynote speech by John Covell, author of “Joyce Kilmer: A Literary Biography.” Participation by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and descendents of Joyce Kilmer.
• Bluegrass music by Robbinsville’s “Britthaven Bunch” at 2 p.m.
• Lunch plates will be served by the Robbinsville Lions Club, with baked goods from the volunteers of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library Initiative in Graham County.
• A 5K and 10K road race and 1-mile fun run will be held at 8 a.m. from the Avey Branch Boat Launch.