Southern Appalachians: preserving a path to wilderness

Stewardship crew members were staff from The Wilderness Society

On a trail high above western North Carolina’s spectacular Linville Gorge, I’m hacking at the base of a stubborn Carolina rhododendron with a pulaski ax. The trunk and roots of this “rhodo” seem to get broader and stronger the deeper I dig.

I use low, chopping motions, newly learned, to avoid maiming nearby colleagues. About a dozen of them are also working up a sweat with various tools in the cool April mist that’s blowing across the Shortoff Trail, a popular path leading into the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area. After some more hacking and sawing, I decide that the water will just have to flow around the dang roots.


“Rest!” cries the chief sawyer, and we pause for breath. 

We are de-berming the trail -- taking off the downhill edge, or berm, of the path so water will continue downhill and off the side of the trail rather than down the center. Trails get compacted in the center, which leads to trickles and eventually torrents of water that seriously erode and degrade the trail.

Occasionally we step aside to let hikers pass. Seeing our pulaskis, grub hoes, Mcleods and orange hard hats with SAWS emblazoned across the front, the hikers invariably thank us for working to improve the trail. They probably mistake us for a regular Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewardship (SAWS) crew. But most of us work at The Wilderness Society in offices as far flung as Alaska, New Mexico and Maine, and we are gathered for a rare staff retreat at Wild Acres, near Asheville in western North Carolina.

SAWS is a project of The Wilderness Society that provides stewardship to areas designated and managed as wilderness in the national forests in parts of Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia. The SAWS staff works closely with local communities and inspires volunteers from nearby rural areas and urban areas as distant as Yonkers, NY to serve as stewards of our public lands. SAWS not only provides vitally needed trail maintenance, it also changes the lives of many of its participants.

Since its founding in 2010, hundreds of young adults have been inspired by SAWS through summer crew employment and internships, alternative-break and other college programs, training at the Wilderness Skills Institute, and the opportunity to work as Wilderness Rangers.

In recognition of the strength of these programs, SAWS founder, director (and chief sawyer) Bill Hodge was presented the Champion of Change Award for Engaging the Next Generation of Conservation Leaders at the White House in March 2014.

Back on the trail in North Carolina, all of us Wilderness Society volunteers are relishing our chance to take a short break from day-to-day wilderness advocacy so we can spend some time in a historic wilderness area, working to improve the trail and hiking experience for visitors. We had received thorough briefings from the SAWS staff -- Bill Hodge, Brenna Irrer and Scotty Bowman – on safety, use of tools, wilderness etiquette, elementary sawyering plus background about the history and the current wear and tear on this frequently visited wilderness. 

The Linville Gorge Wilderness Area is one of the original wild landscapes that was protected when the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Johnson in 1964. Located in the Pisgah National Forest, the area boasts old-growth forest, endangered wild plants and, of course, the 2,000-foot-deep gorge itself, sometimes called the Grand Canyon of the East. Peregrine falcons nest in the steep cliffs that tower above the Linville River running through the gorge.

As a treat, some of us hiked to the bottom of the gorge through the deep forest, parts of which had burned just six months earlier. This forest needs periodic fire to burn excess fuel that builds up, and in fact several species of wild plants, like the mountain golden heather, depend on fire. But already new foliage was emerging in the burned areas. Among the head-turning wildflowers was Painted Trillium (trillium undulatum) – showing off spectacular triplets of white and magenta against the mildly scorched forest floor.

After the trip, Brenna provides us with some stats. In the two days that we had toiled on the Shortoff Trail, we logged a combined total of 148 hours of stewardship, brushed 300 feet of trail (i.e. cut encroaching vegetation), de-bermed 350 feet of trail and removed one trail-blocking tree through artful use of a seven-foot crosscut saw.

There’s a dollar value that can be assigned to the trail maintenance we did during our two days. But for us volunteers, the work gave a glimpse of what the young SAWS participants experience serving as stewards and providing care to this ancient, storied Appalachian wilderness. And that was priceless.