Sliding Rock, in Pisgah National Forest, is one of the region's most popular destinations. Photo via Wikipedia/Lincolnh

About the Forest Lookouts series
This story launches an in-depth reporting series explores the future of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests which are – for the first time in 20 years – undergoing an extensive re-planning process. Hiking through the national forests, paddling a river or fishing a stream, you can’t see the plan. But this process – which will ultimately oversee more than 1 million acres in 18 mountain counties using a process that has been largely untested on the East Coast – will have innumerable impacts on Western North Carolina’s residents, economies and environment. In Forest Lookouts, Carolina Public Press will pull back the layers of bureaucracy to report on the plan’s players and leaders, analyze the plan’s inception and implementation, find what community leaders, elected officials and conservationists think are the biggest issues facing the forests and explore the best ways to manage the forest for future generations — all to help residents across North Carolina understand what’s going on and how to participate.

Part One: Diving In: What’s at stake for Pisgah and Nantahala
Part Two: WNC’s National Forests: Is the public in? Or are we out?
Part Three:
50 years after the Wilderness Act, what’s the future of WNC’s wild places?
Sidebar: Understand the law: The Wilderness Act
Sidebar: Advocates, forest managers debate national forest logging claims

Sliding Rock, in Pisgah National Forest, is one of the region's most popular destinations. Photo via Wikipedia/Lincolnh
Sliding Rock, in Pisgah National Forest, is one of the region’s most popular destinations. Photo via Wikipedia/Lincolnh

Diving In: What’s at stake for Pisgah and Nantahala

On a recent warm summer day in July, dozens of swimmers of all ages are lined up the side of a creek in the Pisgah National Forest. Donned in bathing suits and cut-off jeans, they readied themselves to descend on their rear ends down a 50-foot natural granite water slide and plummet into a 7-foot pool of eye poppingly cold water in the heart of the Pisgah Ranger District. The popular slick rock is steep enough for a thrill, but not sheer enough to be reckless — an impressive signifier of nature’s ability to not only devise complex ecological systems, but also engineer world-class water slides.

The area is free from the trappings of an amusement park. No piped-in classic rock. No sticky snacks. Still, the nature-built slide requires innumerable resources: lifeguards, trash collectors, parking attendants – just for starters. The Sliding Rock Recreation Area is among the most-popular destinations in the third most-visited national forest systems in the United States. (In 2012, 7.5 million people visited North Carolina’s four national forests.)

But look beyond the windshield and venture past the popular roadside attractions, and you’ll find find huge swaths of wild terrain and towering hardwoods, rare wildflower, sparkling streams, fish and wildlife in Western North Carolina’s two National Forests – the Pisgah and the Nantahala. A flourishing ecological system that emerged from renegade logging that nearly decimated the Southern Appalachians around the turn of the 20th century, the 1-million-plus acre public forests span 18 mountain counties. They are among the most biodiverse and beautiful places in the country. Known for their famous trails and peaks, the forests are also popular destinations for hikers, boaters, naturalists, climbers, anglers, hunters and – yes — creek sliders.

Driving through the area, hiking one of the trails, or fishing in one of the streams, you’d have little indication that these forests are undergoing an unprecedented planning process – one that will have decades-worth of impacts in nearly every Western North Carolina county. This process will also offer a testing ground for national forest managers who face new guidelines on how, when and to what degree the public can influence the forests’ future.

In June 2015, nearly four decades after legislation was enacted that stipulated that the public be engaged in forest planning, the U.S. Forest Service will present proposed forest plan alternatives. The agency will also issue a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which includes an analysis based on what experts and users of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests have to say. Ultimately, the documents will influence the best way to protect the future of public forests in Western North Carolina.

MORE: Next round of Pisgah, Nantahala national forest planning meetings underway

‘People across the nation are looking to NC to pull it off’

Map of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests in Western North Carolina. Map courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service
Map of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests in Western North Carolina. Map courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service

The stakes are arguably high – for the region’s economy and ecosystem alike. In the early part of the 20th century, following Pisgah and Nantahala’s designations, the protection of the forests in Western North Carolina was heralded by some as an enormous environmental victory. Today, however, the struggle to protect the land from industrial-scale logging is over. Instead, attention is focused on how to manage public forests for a wide range of uses, including timber harvesting, recreation, conservation and wildlife habitat. Given the historical, ecological, and economic importance of the two forests, that’s no simple task.

Beginning in 2012, the National Forests of North Carolina office of the U.S. Forest Service has overseen an effort to revise what’s known as the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests Land and Resource Management Plan. Past federal legislation and new planning guidelines developed in 2012 (known as the 2012 planning rule) dictates that the Forest Service must listen to the wide range of stakeholders and users while employing the best science available to revise a plan that will set the strategy for managing one of North Carolina’s most precious resources. The effort is scheduled to end in 2016, with the release of a management plan decision in August of that year.


As of the beginning of this month, many participants of the plan revision process, including Bill Kane, a Cullowhee resident and the president emeritus of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, said that the Forest Service has so far done a good job of listening to a wide range of interests. The first stages of the planning process have been smooth, he said.

Still, Kane acknowledged that the Forest Service has a pretty tough job ahead of them – which includes the public release of proposed forest plan alternatives and a draft environmental impact statement by June 2015.

“If everyone walks away with something they can live with, then that’s a pretty good outcome,” he said, adding that with so many interests at the table it won’t be easy. “The reality is the USFS will eventually have to make decisions that irritate most people — if not all.”

Kevin Colburn, the Asheville-based American Whitewater stewardship director, said that the national forest planning revision process is designed to work through conflict. From his view, he said, the Forest Service is carrying their best planning ideas forward. American Whitewater is a national non-profit organization with a mission “to conserve and restore America’s whitewater resources and to enhance opportunities to enjoy them safely.”

“I think the sweet spot is that the forest service puts out an expectation that the process will be collaborative – that we learn from one another, exchange ideas, and provide opportunities for mutual understanding — without getting caught up in complex negotiations between users,” Colburn said.

Yet, the history, culture and economies of Western North Carolina are deeply woven into how local residents view the use of public forests, which is why many local residents, conservation groups, and others are paying close attention to the current management plan revision. For the first time since 1994, users – such as those who enjoy swimming at Sliding Rock – are joining experts in guiding the process.

“I think the [National Forests of North Carolina] is really good at what they do — they understand people paddle, hunt, climb and do all of these things in the forest. They are good at managing it and are well-suited to the job,” Colburn said, adding that “as an ‘early adopter’ of the 2012 planning rule, people around the nation are looking to North Carolina to pull it off.”

The greatest good for the greatest number

Gifford Pinchot
Gifford Pinchot

In 1892, a young Gifford Pinchot, a Yale-educated scion to a fortune earned from logging – arrived at the train depot in Asheville to oversee the wooded domain — much of it damaged and heavily cutover, widely grazed by free-range cattle and widely burned by fire — around the Biltmore Estate. The high-minded forester believed that “scientific” forestry could not only produce timber for a rapidly industrializing nation, but was convinced the forests could be managed for future generations, too.

Pinchot didn’t stay in Asheville for long. But, two decades later, he would again oversee portions of land once owned by George W. Vanderbilt — this time as the nation’s first chief public forester, located in Washington, D.C.

Among President Theodore Roosevelt’s most-trusted advisers, Pinchot joined the president to lead a crusade at the turn of the 20th century to protect what they considered the plundering of the nation’s vast natural resources. Roosevelt voiced that sentiment in his first annual message to the United States Congress when he said, in 1901, that the nation’s forests “should be set apart forever for the use and benefit of our people as a whole and not sacrificed to the shortsighted greed of a few.”

Those words formed a prelude to the formation of a federal forest agency. Organized in 1905, the U.S. Forest Service was created to manage 21 million acres of forests in the western United States set aside by President Grover Cleveland in 1897. Before that, the U.S. Department of the Interior managed the forests.

Eventually, the Forest Service turned its attention to the east, where forests were in dismal shape due, in part, to industrial-scale timber harvests. The passage of the Weeks Act in 1911 gave the federal government the ability to purchase private land from willing sellers in order to protect the headwaters of rivers and watersheds. Beginning with the purchase, 1911, of an 8,100 acre in the Curtis Creek watershed in McDowell County from the Burke McDowell Lumber Company, the federal government ultimately protected 1.25 million acres of forest land in the Southern Appalachians — an area the size of the state of Delaware — by 1918. In all, a total of 20 million acres in the east eventually became part of the national forest system east of the Mississippi — including the 87,000 acres that Pinchot originally managed on the Biltmore Estate.

Government tool house and signboard, Swing and Lick Gap. Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina, 1916. Click to view full-size image.
Government tool house and signboard, Swing and Lick Gap. Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina, 1916. Click to view full-size image.

A success story, challenged

Katherine Newfont
Katherine Newfont

Kathryn Newfont, a historian at Mars Hill University and author of Blue Ridge Commons: Environmental Activism and Forest History in Western North Carolina, wrote that, in the first few decades following the creation of the national forests in Western North Carolina, the Forest Service “helped enable one of the great conservation success stories in U.S. history” by restoring a widely damaged forest.

But while many have applauded the creation of the forest protection system, the debate eventually turned to how to manage such a vast resource.

Today, the Forest Service faces a new set of challenges in the current forest planning process that were unimaginable to Gifford Pinchot — from global warming to the threat of invasive species. Now, the Forest Service is tasked with making complex management decisions with weighty consequences that are pivotal for many users of the forest and the economy of the region.

“Wherever you are in Western North Carolina, public lands are always in the backdrop — forests are always in view,” Jill Gottesman, of the national wilderness advocacy organization, The Wilderness Society, said to Carolina Public Press in December 2013. “We’re the next generation of people stewarding the land, and this is one of our biggest opportunities to guide the management of our backyard.”

Newsmakers event held in November

Newsmakers forum

We want to hear from you

  • What are your questions, concerns, ideas and analysis about the future of the region’s national forests? Send your comments and questions to Jack Igelman at
  • We also want to hear your stories! What’s your first memory of the forests? Did you or your family members have a part is forming the region’s national forests? Send your memories, photos and mementos to Editor Angie Newsome at, using the subject line: National Forest Memories.

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Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at

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