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Wednesday, 02 March 2011 21:06

Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest turns 100

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By Brent Martin • Guest Writer

The Nantahala-Pisgah national forests celebrated their 100th birthday March 1.  

Of course, the forests, mountains and rivers defining our landscape as the special place that it is have been here for millions of years. But when the Weeks Act was passed by Congress 100 years ago, the region’s forests were, for the most part, in a severely cut over, degraded condition. Champion Fiber (later to become Champion Lumber), Ritter, Andrews, and Gennett Lumber companies, along with many others, had clearcut tens of thousands of acres in the Western North Carolina mountains in the early 20th century and left in their collective wake a landscape of silt-filled streams and fire-ravaged hillsides.  

Massachusetts Con. John Weeks had seen the devastation in his own state for years and became a champion for the legislation that authorized the U.S. Forest Service to begin acquiring “the lands nobody wanted” from willing sellers in the eastern United States. This legislation established what are known as Purchase Units for the U.S Forest Service, which created boundaries around large areas of eastern states that authorized them to purchase land within.

Here in Western North Carolina, the forest service was authorized to purchase land within a two-million-acre area that stretches from the state line in southwestern North Carolina to the Virginia line and the Roan Highlands.  What makes North Carolina’s role so significant in these early years of the Week’s Act was that the first tract of land purchased under this new legislation was here in WNC — 8,100 acres near Old Fort in the Curtis Creek watershed. Not long after this, in 1915, Edith Vanderbilt sold 87,000 acres to the forest service following the early death of her husband, George. This tract became the core of the Pisgah National Forest.

 

Tar Heels take lead

However, North Carolina had been a leader in the movement to protect its mountain region and forests for years. As early as 1892, Charles S. Sargent, author of the first forest census of the United States — and who traveled with John Muir in Western North Carolina — published a plan for a southern Appalachian Forest Reserve in the influential magazine, Garden and Forest.

During that time, Joseph A. Holmes, state geologist of North Carolina, recommended the establishment of a reserve in the North Carolina mountains. Also significantly, the North Carolina General Assembly and the North Carolina Press Association began to emerge as supporters of an a national park in the western part of the state. In 1894 the press association petitioned Congress for the establishment of such a park.

In 1899, at the urging of physician Chase P. Ambler of Asheville, a parks and forestry committee was organized by the Asheville Board of Trade. In November of that year a meeting was held at the old Battery Park Hotel in Asheville that resulted in the Appalachian National Park Association. George S. Powell was the association’s first president. Dr. Chase P. Ambler, to whom credit is given for subsequent accomplishments of the group, was named secretary.

In 1900 there followed a joint survey by the U.S. Bureau of Forestry and the Geological Survey of about 9.6 million acres of forestland to determine its suitability as a national forest reserve in the southern Appalachians. In 1903, the Appalachian National Park Association was renamed the Appalachian National Forest Reserve Association. Although the association disbanded, in 1905 the notion of a national park and the effort to establish forest reserves in the East and in the Appalachian region was taken up by the American Forestry Association (AFA).  

 

Leaders get involved

The AFA became a leader in this movement, and was instrumental in building support for the Weeks Act. When the law was finally passed, Congress began appropriating funds on an annual basis that authorized the forest service to purchase hundreds of thousands of acres in the east at an average price of $3 to $10 per acre, depending upon the condition of the land. Although much of the land had been cutover, timber cruisers at the time estimated that about a fourth of the land that the Forest Service purchased in the southern Appalachians remained virgin timber.

Approximately 400,000 acres were purchased in Western North Carolina between 1912 and 1930, but during the decade of the Great Depression, over a half million acres were added to the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests.  During the 1940s, this number dropped to under 200,000 acres, with only approximately 100,000 acres added during the next 50 years.  

Today, the acreage of the Nantahala-Pisgah national forest totals 1.1 million acres. It is the defining natural feature of our landscape, and coupled with our remaining working farms and forests, rural communities, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, it makes for one of the most culturally and naturally rich landscapes in North America.

 

A century later

So where are we 100 years after the passage of this critical legislation, with its emphasis on watershed and forest restoration, outdoor recreation, and sustainable timber supply?

There is no doubt that the Forest Service did a tremendous job in those early years stabilizing stream flow, replanting forests, and creating campgrounds, trails, and access. And as the landscape recovered and America’s economy boomed in the heady years following World War II, more and more people began flowing into the region to build second homes, retire, and escape the urban sprawl and lifestyle that seem to grow closer to our region every day.

The 2009 Forest Service report “National Forests on the Edge” ranked the Nantahala-Pisgah national forests fourth in the nation for threats from sprawl and development.  The current downturn in the economy has slowed this threat, but with population growth predicted at 30 percent for Western North Carolina over the next several decades, it is just a matter of time before we face this threat again.  

The demand for water will only grow in the region, and surrounding cities like Atlanta, Knoxville, and Charlotte will increasingly look to our mountains to meet their water needs for their own growing populations. They’ll also look here for their energy needs, which could include possible biomass from our forests and wind turbines on our ridgelines. With this comes the demand for infrastructure, along with the loss of working farms and forests.

Fortunately, we have a strong land trust movement in Western North Carolina, along with numerous watershed associations and conservation organizations working to protect our natural resources for current and future generations of Americans.

We also face the uncertainty of what climate change means for our region, along with the long list of exotic pests that are invading our native forests and streams.  Much like the American chestnut that was almost wiped out by an exotic blight in the early 20th century, our eastern hemlock is facing a similar threat from the Asian Hemlock Wooly Adelgid.   

But drive or walk anywhere in the Western North Carolina region and you will likely see beautiful forested mountains.  I think we will have these for years to come, and this is due to the vision of many who came before us over one hundred years ago. This gives me hope.

(Brent Martin is the Southern Appalachian Program Director for The Wilderness Society. His office is in Sylva, and he can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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