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A view from above

Editor’s note: The Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, a regional environmental group, took the Smoky Mountain News on an aerial tour of the seven western counties last month. The group’s goal was to convey their perspective on threats facing the changing mountain landscape.

While witnessing an up-close aerial view of the mountains is an awe-inspiring adventure for most, for Ben Prater, a biologist with the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, it’s a major let-down.

Instead of wowing over the endless ridgelines, the blue lakes and green forest, the striking peaks and valleys, Prater just sighs and shakes his head over what he sees as a rapid erosion of that beauty. Even the pristine green flanks of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are tempered by the surrounding slopes cobbled with driveways and freshly carved subdivision roads.

Prater’s day job is protecting national forests, but he’s been fighting an uphill battle lately when it comes to the Nantahala National Forest.

Logging operations have increased significantly almost overnight in the Nantahala as result of more lenient federal policies governing logging on public lands. Meanwhile, encroaching development is chipping away at the edges of the Nantahala and sometimes taking bites out of the middle.

“What may look enormous to us is not so enormous to wildlife that need this territory to raise their young,” Prater said. “It’s really hard for wildlife to coexist in some of these places, especially large mammals like black bear. It’s getting harder and harder for them to survive.”

The most obvious threat to the forest was development. A house here, a subdivision there — and the corresponding network of roads and driveways — and suddenly the vastness and remoteness of the mountains from the ground shrinks when viewed from above.

“It’s forcing all these species and all this wildlife into these last areas. It’s chopping in from all sides,” Prater said. “Public lands are becoming more and more important because they are getting squeezed off private land.”

In addition to development ringing the national forests, private homes are cropping up in the middle of the national forest as well.

“When you look on a map, you see this big swath of green called the Nantahala, but it is really a mosaic of public and private interfaces,” Prater said.

When the Nantahala National Forest was created, homes and communities were scattered throughout most of the hollers. Not all were bought out by the forest service, and in many places the national forest territory remains a patchwork of private in-holdings. For decades the private in-holdings sat there, but as people fleeing urban life seek their own slice of mountain heaven, these tracts are fetching some of the highest dollars on the real estate market.

The Forest Service permits each new home built on these private in-holdings to build their driveway across national forest land, sometimes creating a half-mile or more road through to get to their home.

Upon reaching the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the hodge-podge of mountain developments was replaced by a seemingless endless wave of green swales and ridges. The juxtaposing landscapes on each side of the plane were as clear as a line drawn in the sand.

“In the Smokies, you see a large intact connected landscape. Essentially we have an island with the Smokies getting flanked on all sides by development,” Prater said.

Prater said the region cannot count on the Smokies anymore to anchor the Southern Appalachian ecosystem. He cites the proposed road that would traverse the southern edge of the park. Commonly called the North Shore Road, it would follow the north shore of Fontana Lake from Bryson City to Tennessee.

Prater said North Shore Road is a misnomer. Creeks feeding the lake create inlets that are more than 100 feet across in some places. One road design calls for massive and costly bridges spanning these inlets. The more likely scenario is a road that would leave the edge of the lake and go up into the park to get around the wide inlets.

“It’s extremely rugged terrain,” Prater said.

Prater called it “sacrilegious” to spend public money on “something that will destroy a national treasure.”

An aerial hop, skip and a jump from the proposed North Shore Road is another highway, the proposed Interstate 3 that would span the heart of the Nantahala National Forest en route from Savannah to Knoxville.

“I-3 makes a huge Zorro’s slash through the heart of some of the most intact national forest left in the east,” Prater said. “It’s a travesty.”

The Nantahala National Forest abuts the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — borders that wildlife pay little heed to — but Interstate 3 would create a literal roadblock for species.

“Think about driving a wedge through a piece of wood,” Prater said. “That interconnectivity is so vital for wildlife. When you put a road there, you are looking at a dead zone.”

Throughout the flight, Prater identified the signs of logging operations in the national forests. Crater-like depressions in the forest canopy. Patches of scrubby underbrush that look like a hollow spot compared to the forest around it. Evidence of old clear cuts. Uniform dark green patches reveal numerous pine plantations once planted by the forest service. Recent logging was also evident where the sea of green gave way to a sparse looking patch with only a few remaining trees per acre, a scene not often seen from the ground by the average hiker, mountain biker, fisherman or paddler.

“Typically where people are is where the logging isn’t,” Prater said. “One of the challenges is to make sure they are protecting the resources when they are in places where we can’t get in to see them. That’s where Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project comes in, as a watchdog on the national forests.”

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