Nantahala National Forest (North Carolina).
Credit: Andrew Flenniken, flickr.
The mountains of western North Carolina are an American treasure, containing habitat for black bears, migratory birds, bobcats, numerous amphibians, reptiles and other wildlife; scenic landscapes including the Black Mountains, the highest range in the East; sources of clean water for local communities; and recreation opportunities like hiking, fishing and rafting. But an uncertain future awaits this area's wildest land unless the U.S. Forest Service properly evaluates lands here that may be candidates for wilderness protection.
The Forest Service is busy at work revising its management plan for the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, which is decades old and in need of updates. The new plan will govern the way the million-acre-plus forest is cared for over the next 15 to 20 years, incorporating guidelines for "multiple uses" like outdoor recreation, timber harvest, wilderness and wildlife habitat conservation.
The final version of this plan will be released in late 2017, but a key preliminary step came in July: the release of wilderness evaluations for inventoried areas. These evaluations help determine which areas are analyzed for possible protection as federal wilderness.
Unfortunately, the results of the evaluations immediately alarmed conservationists because they failed to properly document the wilderness characteristics in the region. This will prevent deserving parts of the forest from being recommended for full wilderness protection.
Wilderness evaluation seriously flawed
In western North Carolina, there are over 350,000 acres of lands inventoried with "wilderness characteristics"--meaning that they provide opportunities for solitude and non-motorized recreation, protect old-growth forest and contain habitat for rare and threatened species, among other qualities.
Shining Rock Wilderness, in Pisgah National Forest. Credit: Matt Herring, flick.
These areas need to be properly evaluated, with the most deserving being considered for wilderness recommendations. Yet the U.S. Forest Service has proposed to consider only a fraction of that land. If the agency moves forward with its plan, it could leave valuable wildlands open to logging and road-building.
No new wilderness areas have been designated in North Carolina since 1984. We have to change that.
A growing population in the Southern Appalachians region is putting pressure on wild forests, making relatively untouched wildlands all the more precious for conservation, recreation and simple solitude. The Wilderness Society is working to make sure that these pressures don’t harm our national forests or disrupt wildlife. Please help us by asking the Forest Service to properly evaluate wilderness characteristics and recommend more wilderness protection in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests.