About the Forest Lookouts series
This 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
Enacted in 1964, the Wilderness Act created the National Wilderness Preservation System and a process for Congress to designate wilderness areas. Its purpose was to establish areas of federal land “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
In all, Congress has established more than 106 million acres of federal public lands as wilderness. Additional public areas are managed as “recommended” or “proposed” wilderness until Congress acts on their status. Land classified as wilderness can be managed by various public land agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service.
With some exceptions, the legislation prohibits motorized and mechanized vehicles, timber harvesting, new grazing and mining activity, construction of roads and commercial development. Recreational activities, such as backpacking, camping, and fishing, are permitted in designated wilderness.
Among the initial wilderness areas created by the legislation, the Shining Rock Wilderness Area’s protection ensured that the fragile high-elevation ecosystem could rally back from the industrial-scale logging and fires that radically reshaped the forest in the early half of the 20th century. Since then, it has become a favorite destination for lovers of wild places.
The numbers prove it: Shining Rock is among the most visited wilderness areas in the U.S.
Though steep and rugged, the boundaries are within a short hike of the Blue Ridge Parkway, but it’s not just people in hiking boots that have left their trace in the Shining Rock Wilderness.
There are also the impacts that have no regard for boundaries. The creep of weighty outside forces such as invasive pests and plants, air pollution and a changing climate make the prospects of returning the forest to a pristine condition of an earlier time impossible.
While many consider the Wilderness Act to be among the nation’s most successful environmental laws, conservationists have debated its relevance.
In an essay in the Spring 2014 issue of the Pinchot Letter, Al Sample, the president of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation asks if “even in the most remote area of America’s public lands … will we be forced to reconsider the fundamental concept of wilderness” given the range of threats facing forests and the accelerating human influence on wildland from population growth, climate change, invasive plants and changing land use patterns.
The impacts of people, he wrote, have left no places on the planet untouched and the idea of wilderness – places that are untrammeled – no longer a reality.
However, not all conservationists agree that the definition of wilderness is flawed and some believe that wilderness designations are needed now more than ever.
Kenneth Brower, whose father David was the first director of the Sierra Club, argued recently in a Sierra article that while the original notion of wilderness is under attack, it’s still defensible. “No wilderness advocate–not Muir or anyone else–ever said wilderness means no people. Seasonal visitation by humans does not disqualify a place as wilderness,” Brower wrote.