Archived Outdoors

The changing face of WNC’s national forests

 coverA million acres of national forests sounds like a lot, and indeed it is. But consider the 8.6 million people who visit the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests every year and those vast green swaths that checker any map of Western North Carolina don’t seem quite so big after all.

Recreation has grown exponentially in the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests during the past 20 years, fueled in part by the number of people moving to the mountains precisely that reason: because they like getting outdoors.

In fact, the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests lead the nation in outdoor recreation. Only White Mountain National Forest in Colorado technically has more national forest visitors — but only technically. Mary Noel, planning officer for the Pisgah and Nantahala forests, is quick to point out that White Mountain counts all the visitors to the myriad ski slopes there, inflating the ranks of national forest users, compared to the Pisgah and Nantahala’s far more broad-based recreation numbers.

Outdoor recreation afforded by the Pisgah and Nantahala, and the quality of life it provides, has proven integral to WNC’s economy, and not just its tourist appeal. The three major microbreweries that have announced facilities in the greater Asheville area — bringing with them hundreds of new jobs — all cited outdoor recreation as a prime factor in their decision to come here.

“If you asked the average person living in WNC who moved here in the past 10 years and said ‘Why did you move here?’ the Nantahala and Pisgah would rank pretty high on the list,” said Brent Martin, the Southern Appalachian field director of The Wilderness Society, based in Sylva.

The pressure of outdoor recreation on the national forests will likely take center stage as the forest service launches a sweeping review of its management plan and policies starting early next year. The process will take four years, and engage a broad spectrum of public input, funneling the sometimes competing ideals, uses and visions of the Pisgah and Nantahala into a blueprint for how the national forests are managed.

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“Everyone who lives in WNC has an investment in the outcome,” Martin said.

The sheer number of hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, birding, fishing, horseback riding and environmental groups who will be angling for a seat at the table during the process is staggering. There are at least a couple hundred clubs and organizations with a stake in the national forest lands.

“It’s a challenge for a group like The Wilderness Society that is trying to get everybody on the same page,” Martin said. “There are so many people you need a huge piece of paper to get everyone on that page.”

It’s a far different landscape from the last forest planning process 20 years ago.

“The vast majority of these groups didn’t exist,” Martin said.

Not all outdoor recreation groups have the same views about what the national forests should look like.

“It is hard for everybody to get out there and enjoy the same patch of woods so to speak,” said Jeff Johnson, a ruffed grouse hunter and president of the Macon County chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society. “The horsebacker and the hiker and mountain bikers all have their needs and the right to enjoy their experience.”

Martin would like recreation interests to enter the process as a united front, working toward shared desires rather than collapsing into turf battles.

“I have no doubt we will have disagreements among ourselves about certain things but hopefully they will be so minor that a productive dialog can get us through those disagreements without disagreeing exactly,” Martin said. “It is more of an art than a science.”

That elicited a resounding “hear, hear!” from Robert Acton, a mountain biker from Bryson City with the Nantahala chapter of the Southern Off-Road Mountain Biking Association.

“We have to get past the animosity of the groups,” Acton said. “We have common goals here so lets not get pissy. We all want our trails to work so lets find a way to work toward the same goal.”


Logging takes a backseat

Recreation is a relative newcomer to the national forest scene here. For decades, logging was king. Indeed, that’s why the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests were created a century ago: to provide a steady supply of timber.

The national forest service managed the vast woodlands like a farmer might manage his crop fields, harvesting and replenishing tracts on a rotating schedule.

Intense public opposition has dramatically halted logging over the past two decades, however.

“Timber harvesting is down in North Carolina national forests by about 65 percent from where it was 30 years ago,” said Stevin Westcott, spokesperson for the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests.

Meanwhile, outdoor recreation and environmental interests have surged.

“Twenty years ago we would have been worried about the timber industry. Recreation is now the big demand on this forest,” Martin said.

The national forest plan on the books now, however, harkens back to the ‘80s and ‘90s, before recreation was as dominant as it is now and when forest managers were more logging centric. That’s why Martin sees this forest plan as a golden opportunity.

“Definitely it is a different forest than it was when the last forest plan was issued,” Martin said. “This is an opportunity to realign the management of the Nantahala and Pisgah with the current realities of Western North Carolina.”

While hikers and wilderness lovers might favor old-growth stands, hunters often value clearings that provide food for wildlife — and that means logging. Johnson believes logging has been curtailed too much in most areas of the Nantahala and Pisgah. Logging makes way for forests to regenerate, and those younger forest types support different species than older forests.


Encroaching development

The demand for outdoor recreation on the national forests has been exacerbated by the loss of private forest land in recent years.

Forest cover across the South is forecasted to decline by as much 23 million acres over the next 50 years. Meanwhile, population in the South could climb by 40 percent over the same period, according to Southern Forest Futures Project unveiled by the U.S. Forest Service and partners last year.

“The loss of private land will create added pressures on public land,” Westcott said. “It will continue to be an issue in Western North Carolina.”

The loss of open space, particularly private forest lands, means the national forests are not only more important to the growing ranks of outdoor recreation, but are also increasingly important as a safe haven for species.

The point was an easy one to make during a recent Wilderness Society hike Martin led through the Fishhawk mountains in Macon County. As the trail emerged from the forest onto a rocky, wind-swept bluff, the dozen or so hikers on this Wilderness Society trek walked out to the edge and surveyed the Tessentee Valley below.

The scene was not one of wilderness, but instead of farms, houses and country roads.

“The ridge line we are walking is somewhat a fractured piece,” Martin said.

Human presence is not new on the landscape. Indeed, it has been here for thousands of years, dating back to the Cherokee’s vast network of farms and villages throughout WNC’s river valleys.

But the way humans are occupying the mountains today is far different.

True, there’s still a lot of green on a map of WNC. But as development continues its march, those green tracts are becoming forested islands — whether islands of wildlife habitat or islands of recreation — in an increasingly human-dominated landscape.

“Everyone wants to move here. We look at the map and see the developed areas getting bigger and bigger,” Martin said.



What is the forest planning process?

The Pisgah and Nantahala national forests will embark on a massive planning process later this year that will ultimately shape how 1.1 million acres of public lands in the mountains are managed.

The plan will lay out a vision, goals and values for the Pisgah and Nantahala. The forest plan dictates logging activity, recreational uses, trail maintenance and wilderness area designation. It will address everything from wind turbines to ginsing harvesting in the forests, as well as ecological concerns like the impact of global warming on forest species or the after-affects of the hemlock die backs.

The current forest plan dates to the 1980s and 1990s.


Explore Mountain Treasures

The Wilderness Society in conjunction with the Carolina Mountain Club is holding a year-long series of hikes and camporees to connect outdoor lovers with special places in the national forests.

A weekend filled with hiking and camping will be held in the Nantahala National Forest July 13-15, exploring the Fires Creek, Wayah, Cheoah and Nantahala Gorge areas.

The public is invited to come camp for the weekend, or join in for any of the day hikes. Go to and click on “hiking” and then “camporees.”



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