Hooked on saving North Carolina forest

Stewartia in Fires Creek, North Carolina. Photo by Hugh Irwin.

A decade or so ago a friend suggested to me that instead of my normal spring backpack into my favorite north Georgia trout fishing hole that I instead try the Fires Creek watershed in Clay County, North Carolina. I had seen the mountains that make up this magnificent watershed for years as I drove to various spots along the nearby Appalachian Trail for hiking, but knew little about access to the area, or developed trails. I took his word on it, borrowed a map, caught some great fish, and have been hooked on this wild roadless area ever since.

What I soon learned was that the Fires Creek watershed is within the largest inventoried roadless area in the state of North Carolina. Its 13,000 acres, known as the Tusquitee Roadless Area, was once part of a larger 17,000 acre roadless area, but was carved down to its current size by two decades of Forest Service road building and logging. Tusquitee, which in Cherokee means “land where the water dogs laughed,” is located in the Nantahala Mountains in the far southwestern corner of the state, and is a core part of a larger conservation area totaling over 100,000 acres.

Fires Creek. Photo by Hugh Irwin.The rich cultural and natural landscape of the surrounding area includes 15,000 acres of adjacent National Forest land, the Southern Nantahala Wilderness, the Boteler Peak, Cheoah Bald, and Wesser Bald roadless areas, and other important wildlands. It is in the heart of ancient Cherokee country, and to this day the region remains replete with Cherokee place names and cultural heritage sites.

One of my favorite trails in the area is the 26 mile long Fires Creek Rim Trail, which traverses the unusual horseshoe shaped bowl of mountains, crossing over Tusquitee Bald, which lies at 5,240 feet. It is part of an extensive trail system that is heavily used by hunters, fishers, backpackers, and horseback riders, and which highlights the area’s important recreational values.

Almost all of western North Carolina’s national forests were logged at the turn of the last century, but 4,000 acres of verified old growth forest have been surveyed in the Tusquitee Roadless area. The area is currently managed as a bear sanctuary and as a North Carolina State Heritage Area, and is an important conservation area for neotropical migratory songbirds.

Threats abound with surrounding development on private lands, as well as potential road building and logging projects. With only 178,000 acres of inventoried roadless areas in the 1.1 million acres that make up North Carolina’s Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest, and only 78,000 acres of designated Wilderness, the permanent protection of areas such as Tusquitee is critical. Further highlighting the need for protection is the 2007 Forest Service report, National Forests on the Edge, which ranked the Nantahala-Pisgah fourth in the nation for threats from development on adjacent private land.

Stewartia in Fires Creek, North Carolina. Photo by Hugh Irwin.
Fires Creek. Photo by Hugh Irwin.