A cold winter’s hike reminds me of the value of wild places

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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