Scotty Bowman always knew he wanted to work outdoors, but he couldn’t figure out how to live his dream and also make a livable salary — so he instead paved a career in restaurants, including stints as a chef. At least, this is what Bowman did until hitting his 40s, that momentous time when folks often realize that it’s either now or never to indulge their passions.

Bowman, in taking the risk to build a new career focused on the outdoors, has become part of a unique movement that might just help the Southeast get more Wilderness Areas to enjoy. Bowman has been busy this summer building and fixing trails in remote backcountry settings with Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, a new program of The Wilderness Society that works directly with the forest service to provide support for Wilderness Areas and Wilderness Study Areas.

In Wilderness Areas, you can’t use chainsaws or power tools for trail work, which makes building trails in the backcountry miles from the closest road tough work. The SAWS group is deploying volunteers into Wilderness Areas who are willing to do the heavylifting of trail work using only hand tools, such as crosscut saws, in those remote territories where firing up power tools would violate wilderness regulations.

The labor from SAWS crews not only blazes new trails and keeps existing ones maintained, they could also be key in the effort to get more areas in the national forests designated as wilderness.

Designating new wilderness areas can be controversial given the stricter rules that apply, limiting everything from motorized recreation to hunting to logging to road building.

But even hiking clubs can be against new wilderness designation if it means their volunteer efforts to maintain trails in those areas will become more difficult, explained Brent Martin, Southern Appalachian program director for the Wilderness Society’s, based out of the regional field office in Sylva.

Hiking clubs are the front line when it comes to trail maintenance. But, Martin pointed out, they are generally made up of older, retired folks, with small core groups who also work on trail maintenance. And with limited time and energy, these good Samaritans often understandably balk at the wilderness rule of not being allowed mechanized tools such as chainsaws.

Enter younger, eager men and women such as Bowman, who are simply enchanted with being able to use crosscut saws and other primitive tools. A volunteer stint with SAWS has led to a summer job for Bowman as head of a SAWS volunteer trail crew. He hopes to repeat the experience next summer.

The trail crews are trained in using the necessary primitive tools, and learn trail building and trail maintenance techniques.

Bowman is in college, and anticipates perhaps mingling the contacts made through SAWS into a more permanent outside-oriented job, such as with the U.S. Forest Service.

“I always wanted to be outside, to be a part of doing something for the trails and for the public,” the 42-year-old said. “And I’ve picked up some really cool skills doing this.”

And the wilderness areas are picking up a lot of extra maintenance help these days, said Bill Hodge, director of SAWS.

“The idea is not to replace the hiking clubs, it’s to supplement their work,” Hodge said.

In the Southern Appalachian region encompassing North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina, there are 22 federally designated Wilderness Areas and another 14 Wilderness Study Areas, which fall under the same set of no-mechanized-tools restrictions. Wilderness Study Areas requires congressional approval to move into actual permanently protected Wilderness Areas.

Crews, such as the one led by Bowman, go into the backcountry for five-day stretches at a time to work on the trails. There have also been shorter, weekend-long programs. SAWS is also active through its Wilderness Rangers program, which has placed SAWS “rangers” on the Cherokee National Forest in east Tennessee and on the Chattahoochee National Forest in north Georgia through November.

The initiative is part of a wilderness challenge funding grant, a 10-year effort to bring all of the U.S. Forest Service’s wilderness units up to a certain standard by 2014. North Carolina’s Wilderness Areas were at a higher level this year, but since the areas are reassessed each year, it could be that a SAWS ranger will be used in this state next year, Hodge said.

The SAWS rangers are, along with other duties, helping map where camping sites are being set up in the wilderness areas, Hodge said. Plus, they often serve as the only “official” many visitors will see in these remote regions, helping to guide hikers and provide help as necessary.

SAWS also will hold its second Wilderness Skills College in partnership with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy with two weeks worth of trail techniques and crew-leadership training. This past spring the conference was at the Ocoee Ranger District Work Center in Ocoee, Tenn.

Next spring, the hope is to hold the workshops here in North Carolina, Hodge said.

The situation doesn’t look promising for the formation of a new wilderness area in the Nantahala National Forest, the dream child of Brent Martin, the Sylva-based Southern Appalachian program director for The Wilderness Society.

Martin envisioned easy political passage of the Bob Zahner Wilderness Area. He now acknowledges that his early optimism was misplaced. This veteran environmentalist remains puzzled, however, as to what exactly — politically speaking — happened to what he initially considered a “no-brainer.”

U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, has promised to support the designation, but on this condition: the Macon County Board of Commissioners must first pass a resolution of support. That, however, isn’t likely to happen when the five-man board meets Feb. 8, with a vote for or against the resolution set to take place.

Nor is the vote breaking down along predictable party lines — Democrats for the proposal and Republicans against. In fact, the only certain “yes” vote at this point would be cast by a Republican — Board Chairman Brian McClellan, who represents the Highlands district near where the new Bob Zahner Wilderness Area would be carved out.

A survey of commissioners taken last week by The Smoky Mountain News revealed two flatly against the proposal: Democrat Ronnie Beale and Republican Ron Haven. Two say they are still studying the issue but have reservations about whether it deserves their support: Democrat Bobby Kuppers and Republican Kevin Corbin.

 

What’s at stake

Martin wants to see more wilderness areas designated in North Carolina. He believes in wilderness, he loves the idea of wilderness, and he makes no bones about his commitment to the concept of permanently protecting special areas in these mountains by having them designated wilderness.

A protected, designated wilderness rules out certain uses. Logging, of course. But also machines such as chainsaws and vehicles can’t be used, the biggest sticking point for new Macon County Commissioner Haven.

“There are residences near there,” he said. “What if there is a fire?”

Martin also has run up against fears that a road through the Overflow Wilderness Study Area might eventually be closed to vehicular use. This even though, he said, any local resolution by commissioners and legislation by Congress would specifically spell out that the road would remain open.

The Wilderness Society representative has gotten plenty of support for the concept, but probably not enough to overweigh a thumb’s down from county commissioners. Voting yes to the idea: The Highlands Town Board, Highlands Biological Station, Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust, Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance, Western North Carolina Alliance and the N.C. Bartram Trail Society, among others.  

So, what happened?

That’s hard to pinpoint, frankly. Martin himself is unsure. In nearby Buncombe County, commissioners there supported his proposal to change the 2,890-acre Craggy Mountains Wilderness Study Area to designated Wilderness without so much as a murmur of protest.

• Did Martin underestimate the power of the word “wilderness” in the farthest reaches of Western North Carolina, where many natives remain emotionally bruised by the forced exodus of residents during the formation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — and, during World War II, by the creation of Fontana Lake in Swain and Graham counties and Lake Glenville in southern Jackson County?

• Did a forest service recalcitrant to more stipulations placed on forest-health management throw a monkey wrench in the works by raising questions about what a wilderness designation might really mean?

• Or, is the formation of a designated wilderness area simply unnecessary, as several of the commissioners indicate they believe to be the case, because the acres being eyed already have protection as a wilderness study area? As a study area, no road building and no timber management now.

Whatever the truth, Macon County Commission Chairman McClellan wants the issue resolved, and soon. He is more worried about what the $3.7 billion projected state budget shortfall might do to his county.

“We just need to make some kind of decision and move forward,” McClellan said.

 

 

Nuts and bolts

What: The 3,200-acre Overflow Wilderness Study Area southwest of Highlands would be designated the Bob Zahner Wilderness Area. The area is accessible by N.C. 106, Forest Service Road 79 (1.79 miles, accesses the popular Glen Falls trailhead), and the Bartram Trail.

The area contains the headwaters of the West Fork of Overflow Creek and ranges from 2,500 feet to 4,000 feet in elevation. It includes upland oak forest, with some cove hardwoods and white pine, according to the U.S. Forest Service, with most timber stands 60 to 80 years old. There is also old-growth forest in the area, conservations say. Heavy recreational use of the area includes fishing, hiking, camping and backpacking.

Why: The name suggested is in honor of the late Highlands conservationist Bob Zahner. The purpose is to protect this area permanently from logging and any kind of future development.

How: A Wilderness designation would require approval by the U.S. Congress, via legislation introduced by Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville. He wants Macon County commissioners’ OK, however, before doing so.

 

Timeline

1979: During the nationwide Roadless Area Review, the Overflow Area was recommended for “further planning.” This meant that additional review was necessary before the Forest Service could recommend the Overflow Area be designated wilderness.

1984: The N.C. Wilderness Act designated the Overflow Area as a Wilderness Study Area. This meant the Forest Service should conduct a wilderness study and make a recommendation to Congress.

1987: The Forest Land Management Plan for the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests recommended the area not be designated a wilderness Area. Usage directions were for semi-primitive, non-motorized recreation.

1991: A bill introduced by then U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor would have released the Overflow Area from the designation as a wilderness study area, but did not make it out of committee.

Source: U.S. Forest Service

Back in early January, I found myself waking early to pack for a day-long excursion into the backwoods of Chunky Gal Mountain with a friend who was home from graduate school in Forestry. It was close to 10 degrees up in Cowee Valley where I live in Macon County, and I seriously questioned my judgment as I drove in to Franklin to meet him. However, since he is only in the area about once a year, and being one of the most knowledgeable people I know about forests, I was anxious to go out with him regardless of the weather or my judgment.

We were going out to look for old growth forest, a shared passion that has bonded us for many years, and I knew that I would be pushing through difficult terrain along frozen ground, into the area’s most inaccessible coves — the reason that areas such as these were never cut to begin with.

Chunky Gal Mountain runs roughly north out of the Southern Nantahala Wilderness, along the Clay/Macon county line, with steep western slopes that drain into the Hiwassee River Valley and more gentle eastern slopes that eventually drain into the rugged Nantahala. That there is any old growth at all on this mountain is somewhat of a miracle. Ritter Lumber cut most of the surrounding area in the early 20th century, divesting their cutover and degraded land to the U.S. Forest Service for bargain prices beginning in the 1930s. Though the Forest Service was able to buy most of Chunky Gal mountain during this period with annual appropriations from Congress at established prices ranging from $3 to $10 an acre, they could not quite acquire it all, and a significant 53-acre tract sitting square in the heart of it remained in private ownership until last year when the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee acquired it from a willing seller.

Without this important acquisition, the area could have very well faced a fate similar to the Tusquitee Mountain range just several miles to the west. Private developers there are seeking to build a road into a small in-holding completely surrounded by national forest land, a tract that sits adjacent to the popular Fires Creek Rim trail which is heavily used by hunters, fishermen, and horseback riders. Similarly, the Chunky Gal tract lies directly on the Chunky Gal Trail, an outstanding hiking trail that connects the Appalachian Trail to a larger trail system to the north which includes the Fires Creek Rim trail and other trails around the Tusquitee area.

Fortunately, the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee has an opportunity to protect this area and add it to the Nantahala National Forest through the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This fund, established in 1964 and funded through offshore oil leases and royalties, is at long last receiving an increase in funding, and Chunky Gal and three other North Carolina projects of similar importance are the Forest Service’s priorities for the upcoming budget year. Two of these are in Caldwell County and will be added to the Pisgah National Forest, and one is in the piedmont’s Uwharrie National Forest. With support from North Carolina’s congressional delegation these four important places can be permanently protected.

As we bushwhacked our way across the mountain through the Chunky Gal tract at the end of that very cold day, I was able to at least take some comfort in the possibility. Write your congressional representatives today and ask them to support these acquisitions and to support the full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Brent Martin works for The Wilderness Society out of Franklin. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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