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Asheville Citizen-Times: Celebrating 50 Years of Wilderness

From The Asheville Citizen-Times, May 2014. (View on the Citizen-Times website)

The Linville Gorge Wilderness. Photo: Bill Hodge

It’s still not easy to get to Cold Mountain.

Much as it was for fictional hero Inman in the Civil War days in the novel “Cold Mountain,” reaching the iconic mountain still requires a strong backpack and sturdy boots, many miles of arduous hiking, and map reading skills. There are no signs, few trail blazes if any, and no campfires allowed.

And that’s just the way it will remain.

Reaching the summit of the 6,030-foot-high peak, made extra famous by the Charles Frazier novel and Hollywood movie, will forever be elusively looming, enveloped by a fortress of thick forest and accessible only by foot, safely secured in the heart of Shining Rock Wilderness.

That infinite protection from building, roads, or motors offered by Shining Rock, and the other five federally designated wilderness areas in Western North Carolina, is thanks to the Wilderness Act of 1964.

The federal legislation, which turns 50 this year, established the National Wilderness Preservation System, considered a remarkable feat in protecting the country’s most prized and pristine wildlands. While the act was responsible for the designation of six wilderness areas in Western North Carolina, local forest users are debating whether we have enough wilderness, or we need to add more.

“The Wilderness Act is our most astounding piece of legislation, right up there with the Civil Rights Act,” said Will Harlan, a magazine editor who lives in Barnardsville and just published “Untamed,” about the fight for wilderness designation on Cumberland Island in Georgia.

“It’s the first law that ever that gave priority to nature over people. That’s such an incredibly radical, forward thinking act, and what’s even more phenomenal is it passed almost unanimously. It shows that people want to protect the last scraps of wild places on this planet.”

When the act was signed into law on Sept. 3, 1964, by President Lyndon B. Johnson, there were only three wilderness areas in the Eastern United States, said Brent Martin, regional director for the Sylva-based Wilderness Society.

There was one in New Hampshire and the other two in North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest — Linville Gorge and Shining Rock. Today, Shining Rock is the largest of the six wilderness areas in Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, at 18,483 acres. It is also the most visited, due in large part to its proximity to Asheville and other cities, and its high-caliber hiking trails, including Cold Mountain, Art Loeb, Mountains-to-Sea, and others.

To celebrate the landmark legislation that gave birth to and continues to protect some of Western North Carolina’s most precious forested areas, conservation groups will be holding special events throughout the year. The Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, a program of the Wilderness Society Southern Appalachian Office, will start things off Friday by co-hosting with the U.S. Forest Service “An Evening of Wilderness Champions — Celebrating 50 Years of Wilderness” at Pack’s Tavern.

The event, which will coincide with the completion of the two-week Wilderness Skills Institute in Pisgah National Forest, is free to the public. It features a keynote address by Doug Scott, historian and wilderness champion, and remarks from Meryl Harrell, natural resources and environment chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The event will honor the work of champions, including Aldo Leopold, who founded the Wilderness Society in 1935, and Howard Zahniser, a Wilderness Society president who authored the original Wilderness Act (and died only a few months before its passage), as well as many living, local legends.

“What is really striking to me at this 50th anniversary, is looking back to the folks who put so much time and energy in writing it and getting it through Congress,” said Becky Smucker, wilderness crew chief for the Carolina Mountain Club.

“They had so much vision that they could look ahead and see how needed wilderness was. We’re such short-sighted creatures. It would be much more difficult to protect this land now than it would have been 50 years ago. We’re feeling grateful to these folks.”

The National Wilderness Preservation System has grown from 9.1 million acres to include more than 109 million acres today in about 750 wilderness areas that provide primitive recreation, critical habitat for wildlife, protection for clean drinking water and can act as buffers against climate change by absorbing Earth-warming greenhouse gases.

Although the system includes wilderness on four types of public lands — national forests, national parks, national wildlife refuges, and Bureau of Land Management lands — not all land within those agencies is considered wilderness, Martin said. To create a wilderness takes an act of Congress.

Where wild things are

The establishment of national parks in the beginning of the 20th century was radical thinking at the time, setting aside large chunks of pretty land so that people could enjoy them. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, protecting a half-million acres of forests, streams, waterfalls and stunning views, was established 80 years ago. The Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile road from the Smokies to Shenandoah National Park, was established by blasting holes in the mountains starting in 1935.

Although those parks are pretty places, they are not wilderness.

“The idea of wilderness was a reaction to the National Park System,” Martin said. “In 1935, Aldo Leopold was watching the Park Service cater to tourism, sometimes in a way that wasn’t necessarily protecting the environment. The Park Service was putting in roads, building hotels and accommodations, getting people to places by cars ...

“The Wilderness Act was a reaction by Leopold. He felt we needed other ways to get into wilderness, by horseback and by foot. He felt that we were loving them to death. His idea was about creating big, wild places that we could experience without all that infrastructure. So the only way to really make this happen was congressional designation.”

The language of the law sets out rigorous standards for wilderness, including land that is “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain ... retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation ... affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable, and has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”

Wilderness areas have strict rules governing land management and recreation. They prohibit roads, structures, motor vehicles and mechanical equipment, logging and mineral extraction. Since chainsaws are not allowed, trail maintenance in wilderness areas must be done by hand tools such as cross-cut saws and axes, requiring specially skilled crews.

Martin said there is a lot of misconception about wilderness areas, including worries that it locks up land without letting people access it.

That’s not true, he said, but there are restrictions. Marked, or blazed, trails are rare — such as the trail to Cold Mountain — and hiking groups are limited to 10 people. While hunting, fishing and horseback riding are allowed, mountain biking is not.

“Big ‘W’ wilderness has been congressionally designated as wilderness. A lot of people think of all forest as wilderness, like the Smokies, but it’s not.,” Martin said.

Wilderness areas in the national forests are managed differently. Areas such as Bent Creek Experimental Forest, just south of Asheville, have activities including timber harvesting, restoration work, mountain biking, and allow large groups of hikers and campers. But in the Shining Rock Wilderness Area, there are no mountain bikes, no active roads or active logging projects, no campfires, no motors allowed.

“Wilderness has gotten a lot of heat over the years over not allowing mechanized equipment or bikes, but it’s a slippery slope,” Martin said. “I love the idea of wilderness — big, wild places where you can enjoy a really solitary experience with nature that you really can’t enjoy anywhere else.”

Chris Strout, president of Pisgah Area SORBA (Southern Off Road Bicycling Association), said he and his organization, which works to promote mountain biking and perform trail maintenance, would like to see the idea of wilderness revised.

“We’re not against wilderness. Wilderness is great — we wouldn’t have Joyce Kilmer and these incredible old growth forests without it. But let’s be real about the protection intent bumped up against the actual use,” Strout said.

He said studies have shown that mountain bikes do not cause any more damage to trails than hikers or backpackers, it’s the way they are used. There are irresponsible bikers, just as there are careless hikers, he said.

Conversations are now taking place locally and around the country on possible amendments to the Wilderness Act to allow for mountain biking.

“The most important rules for wilderness areas are Leave No Trace principles,” Smucker said of the land-use ethic of traveling in such a way that there is no sign of your presence, including packing out all garbage, not removing plants or trees, and not making campfires.

WNC’s first two wilderness areas designated by Congress were the Shining Rock and the Linville Gorge.

Martin said the Act was controversial in the years following, with detractors claiming there was no true wilderness left in the East. That led to a push for the 1975 the Eastern Wilderness Act.

That allowed wilderness areas to be established in the East and put to bed the argument that there are no pristine areas left in the East,” Martin said. “Areas can recover and reclaim wilderness. Shining Rock, for example, it looks so spectacular, but it had all been cut and burned.”

The 1975 bill designated the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness area (13,562 acres) and the Ellicott Rock Wilderness (3,394 acres), both in Nantahala National Forest. The Southern Nantahala (11,944 acres) and the Middle Prong (7,460 acres), were established in 1984.

In the past 30 years, no new wilderness areas have been created in WNC. The six established wilderness areas total 66,500 acres or 6.4 percent of the total forest land in Pisgah and Nantahala. There are also Uwharrie National Forest in the Piedmont and the Croatan on the coast, but the westernmost forests contain more than 1 million acres. According to the most recent National Visitor Use Monitor Survey in 2010, they receive nearly 5 million visitors a year, the third most visited national forests in the country.

Some say that means it’s time for more wilderness.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has introduced a wilderness bill in Tennessee, which would include a a 9,000-acre area just over the North Carolina border, the Upper Bald River Wilderness Area. But a new bill in North Carolina will likely not see light for several years, Martin said.

Studying new wilderness areas

“One of the great things about the Wilderness Act is that it passed almost unanimously. It has enjoyed a pretty good bipartisan life, although it tends to get polarized now,” Martin said.

The 1984 bill designated five Wilderness Study Areas in Western North Carolina, totaling 26,920 acres, and including the 2,380-acre Craggy Mountain WSA just north of Asheville, and the 5,700-acre Lost Cove WSA in McDowell County. These are congressionally designated areas recommended for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. All five are managed to protect wilderness attributes he said.

“It takes a long time. There’s a lot of political work, and a lot of community work,” he said.

The U.S. Forest Service is in the midst of a multiyear revision to the Pisgah-Nantahala Forest Management Plan, which all forests must undergo every 15 years. The process, which includes many layers of public input, has just finished the inventory phase, and is entering the evaluation phase, said Ruth Berner, forest planner for the Forest Service in Asheville.

Berner said the preliminary inventory found about 198,000 acres, or about 19 percent, of land in the Pisgah and Nantahala, as potential additions to wilderness. These included an area called Bald Mountain on the Tennessee border in Madison County, and a portion of an area known as Big Ivy or the Coleman Boundary, which already contains the Craggy Mountain WSA. Also identified were portions of Laurel Mountain and the Turkey Pen area, which are now popular for mountain biking.

“When we look at the criteria for wilderness areas, it all comes back to the Wilderness Act,” Berner said. “When we do the inventory, we start by looking at large blocks of land with very few roads, and very little evidence of human disturbance or habitation.”

At the last public meeting in April aimed specifically at wilderness and areas of special designation, Berner said opinions varied widely.

“The next step is the evaluation process,” she said. “We will have an opportunity for the public to comment on evaluation process. We’ll determine which of the areas to analyze in the environmental impact statement for our proposed revised plan.”

She said the environmental impact statement should be released later this year.

“Wilderness is more important than ever. We need more places where we must change our behavior, and are a bit more humbled,” said Harlan, who lives near the Craggy Mountain Wilderness Study Area, which can be viewed from the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Craggies. “Not only do they have benefits of recreation, but they are essential for our water supply, and have direct benefits to our health and our economy.”


“An Evening of Wilderness Champions – Celebrating 50 Years of Wilderness,” is a free celebration of the two-week Wilderness Skills Institute and the 50th anniversary of The Wilderness Act, 4-8 p.m. Friday at Pack’s Tavern, 20 South Spruce St. Call The Wilderness Society at 587-9453 or visit for more information.

Following are the six wilderness areas in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests:

• Shining Rock. Established in 1964, it is the largest wilderness in North Carolina with 18,483 acres. Named for a rock outcrop, Shining Rock became one of the three original components of the National Wilderness Preservation System. It is separated by only a road from Middle Prong Wilderness to the southwest. It has five peaks exceeding 6,000 feet, including Cold Mountain, and popular hiking trails, including part of the Art Loeb.

• Linville Gorge. Established in 1964, it now has a total of 11,786 acres. From its headwaters on Grandfather Mountain, the Linville River runs through the steep gorge for about 12 miles. Highlights include Hawksbill, Table Rock and the Chimneys.

• Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. Established in 1975 on the border with Tennessee in Graham County. It now has a total of 17,394 acres. North Carolina contains about 13,562 acres and Tennessee 3,832 acres. The area is known for its giant old growth trees.

• Ellicott Rock Wilderness. Established in 1975, at the intersection of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. It now has a total of 8,274 acres. North Carolina contains about 3,394 acres, Georgia contains 2,021acres, and South Carolina 2,859 acres.

• Middle Prong. Designated in 1984 and it now has a total of 7,460 acres. The wilderness rests on high ridges southeast of Richland Balsam. Elevations range from 3,200 feet on the West Fork of the Pigeon River to 6,400 feet near Richland Balsam. The Blue Ridge Parkway parallels the southern wilderness boundary.

• Southern Nantahala: Designated in 1984, it sits on the border with Georgia. It has a total of 23,473 acres, with about 11,900 acres on the North Carolina side. It is known for rugged backpacking trails, and contains 32 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

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