A view of Linville Gorge Wilderness from Hawksbill Mountain, one of only three Wilderness areas designated in the entire eastern United States when the 1964 Wilderness Act was passed.
Story by Brent Martin | Photos by Bill Hodge
Most Western North Carolinians are familiar with popular and iconic places like Shining Rock and Linville Gorge Wilderness areas, yet most are not familiar with the law that created and protected them permanently. Fifty years ago this coming September, these two areas, along with nine million acres across the remainder of the United States, will celebrate the anniversary of one of the most important and uniquely American conservation laws in our nation’s history: the Wilderness Act.
When this act was signed into law in 1964, it established the legislative means to designate and permanently protect federally-owned public lands from resource extraction, road building, and development—setting the stage for two more Wilderness bills in North Carolina history that would establish the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock and Ellicott Rock Wilderness areas in 1975, and the Southern Nantahala and Middle Prong Wilderness areas in 1984.
Significant for North Carolina, Shining Rock and Linville were two of only three areas designated in the entire eastern United States when the 1964 Wilderness Act was passed. Most of the east was overlooked at that time, under the false assumption that the east lacked any “Wilderness quality” lands. In the years following the act, this assumption, and attempts to impose a “purity standard” on the creation of new Wilderness, made it all the more difficult to protect public lands permanently in the east. The 1975 Eastern Wilderness Act nullified this argument, however, and with its passage new Wilderness in the east became a reality and a promise.
Since most of the east had been cutover and burned catastrophically prior to the Forest Service acquiring lands here after 1911, the argument had been that we had no true wilderness left. What the eastern Wilderness Act essentially did was make it possible to designate areas as Wilderness that had been cutover and exploited (most of the forests in Western North Carolina), and to protect these places permanently for present and future generations.
The area we now know as Shining Rock Wilderness, for example, had been cutover by private timber companies in the early 20th century and catastrophically burned in the years afterward. This spectacular high elevation landscape that bordered the Blue Ridge Parkway nonetheless held tremendous value for recovery and restoration and, with its official designation as Wilderness, we now enjoy its numerous trails, forests, and views with little thought of its highly exploited past.
The burning that followed logging was so severe that we still see its effects at places like Graveyard Fields, and along the Art Loeb trail, where the soils have still not recovered to the point of supporting what should be spruce-fir forest. For a fictionalized account of this landscape, there is no better place to start than Western North Carolina author Ron Rash's novel Serena which is set in Haywood County during the early 20th century.
A Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards BOOT Crew prepares to hike into Shining Rock Wilderness to work on trail building and maintenance (L-R: Scotty Bowman, Danielle Bouchonnet, Nick Biemiller, Aaron Sandford).
The timber barons in his novel ravage the mountains and its inhabitants without remorse or conscience, leaving behind a wasteland of exploited human life, and a landscape stripped of its capacity to create and sustain any semblance of what it came in and destroyed. They fought the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and mocked the efforts of those who believed otherwise. When they moved on, it was to another place where they could start all over again with the exact same approach and results. Yet what we know now is that with time and proper care, these lands can recover, providing timber and jobs, Wilderness, wild rivers, and the multitude of experiences we desire and appreciate from these irreplaceable National Forests that now surround us here in Western North Carolina.
The next time you make a trip down the Blue Ridge Parkway and see those magnificent views out to Shining Rock, remember that protecting these lands was a major effort by people who cared and who worked for the passage of something called The Wilderness Act.
Brent Martin has spent most of his adult life working in forest and farmland conservation in the mountains of north Georgia and Western North Carolina. Since 2007, he has served as the regional director for the Southern Appalachian Office of the Wilderness Society. The Wilderness Society (wilderness.org) is the leading American conservation organization. Its mission is to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places.