Conservationists and mountain bikers share a deep appreciation for the trails and landscape within Lost Cove and Harper Creek, two wilderness study areas in Avery and Caldwell counties.

But their reasons are different.

Conservationists prize the area for its remote and untamed characteristics. Mountain bikers covet trails in the two areas, where cycling is currently prohibited.

Those differences in values have led to friction over how the land in these congressionally designated wilderness study areas, or WSAs, ought to be used, a policy that the U.S. Forest Service may change in coming months.

Study areas without permanent protection

While the U.S. Forest Service manages WSAs as wilderness, the areas lack permanent wilderness protection.

The Forest Service may recommend late this summer that the two WSAs, both within Pisgah National Forest, be added to the National Wilderness Preservation System as part of the ongoing Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest management plan revision process, slated to be finalized in 2019.

In 1992, U.S. Rep. Cass Ballenger proclaimed that the Lost Cove and Harper Creek tracts, amounting to nearly 13,000 acres in Western North Carolina, should be “preserved for the enjoyment of generations to come.”

Those words from the late Hickory congressman came during his unsuccessful bid to pass legislation to assign permanent federal wilderness designation — the highest level of land protection — to the two WSAs. Just as had occurred in two previous attempts in 1990 and 1991, the bill flew through the House but fizzled before reaching a vote in the Senate.

Ballenger’s proposal was as close as any acreage in North Carolina has come to wilderness designation since 1984, when five areas totaling 68,700 acres were designated as wilderness and 25,816 acres were established as WSAs — including Lost Cove and Harper Creek — by the North Carolina Wilderness Act of 1984.

Later this summer, the Forest Service will unveil several management alternatives for the more than 1 million acres of national forest throughout Western North Carolina. Included in the alternatives will be recommendations for future wilderness. While federal law requires the Forest Service to manage WSAs as wilderness, making them wilderness or removing the WSA designation would take additional legislation.

In July 2016, the Forest Service provided a draft analysis of possible wilderness designations. In each of the four draft alternatives presented in the document, the Harper Creek and Lost Cove WSAs were included as recommendations for wilderness.

Lost Cove and Harper Creek are among the wildest remaining places in North Carolina’s northern mountains that have eluded development, according to Matt Wasson, director of programs for Appalachian Voices, a Boone-based conservation organization that has not participated in formal partnerships associated with the forest plan revision.

“These really are some of the best candidates we have for wilderness in the state,” Wasson said. “The only reason they haven’t been designated (as wilderness) is because of what happens in Washington.”

Cyclists oppose wilderness designation

Mountain bikers in the region don’t support future wilderness designation for these sites, which would continue the ban on bikes there that exists under the wilderness study area designation.

Boone trail advocate Paul Stahlschmidt, a Northwest North Carolina Mountain Bike Alliance board member, said off-road cyclists in the region are underserved in the Grandfather Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest.

“I can’t speak for all mountain bikers, but there are many who don’t want wilderness in these areas,” Stahlschmidt said, adding that mountain bikers are among the nation’s fastest-growing outdoor recreational user groups.

Riders in the area want access to more trails in the Wilson Creek watershed, which encompasses Harper Creek and Lost Cove. The area has long backcountry riding opportunities that are rare in the eastern U.S.

“I believe in the Wilderness Act, but it bans mountain bikes,” said Stahlschmidt, who does not support amending the Wilderness Act to allow mountain bikes. His organization supports other protective designations that would allow cyclists access to more trails in Lost Cove and Harper Creek.

Enacted in 1964, the Wilderness Act was created to provide Congress with a process to designate wilderness areas. In all, North Carolina has more than 100,000 acres of wilderness. While an act of Congress would be required to strip Lost Cove and Harper Creek of their wilderness study area status, proposed legislation from various Congress members, if passed, could strip protection from WSAs.

For example, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte of Montana recently proposed a bill that would release 690,000 acres of WSA on public land in his home state.

Jay Leutze, a trustee of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, commended Ballenger for his vision.

“He had an abiding love for this neck of the woods and used his position in Congress to advance permanent protection for some of the areas we now all enjoy as public land,” Leutze said.

“Any effort to weaken protections so hard-won would be an affront to the visionaries who worked to attain the WSA designation in the first place.”

Leutze said he understands the mountain bikers’ desire to access more trails. But he prefers developing “mountain bike trails on lands where that use is consistent with current management plans.”

“Mountain biking is a great fit for some places in our state, just not in wilderness areas,” Leutze said.

Stahlschmidt said an effort is underway to improve trails and add mileage in other areas in the Grandfather Ranger District. While he opposes permanent wilderness designation in Lost Cove and Harper Creek, he expressed a willingness to work with wilderness advocates to find common ground.

Notably, Stahlschmidt and Brent Martin, a former staff member of The Wilderness Society, along with others, spearheaded discussions before the launch of the forest planning process to address tensions between conservationists and mountain bikers in the region.

Bill Hodge, executive director of Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, said he was “near the center of the orbit” of the initial meetings that discussed Lost Cove and Harper Creek. Now an independent wilderness stewardship group, SAWS was formerly a program within The Wilderness Society.

Hodge said the discussions revolved around the anticipation of potential divisions between wilderness advocates and recreational users, such as mountain bikers. The meetings predated other formal collaborative efforts that formed during the forest planning process.

Martin said his initial conversations with Stahlschmidt began when Martin organized various groups to form the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Partnership, which has provided input to the Forest Service during the planning process.

Memorandum sought compromise, sparked controversy

Those discussions culminated in a proposal known as the Memorandum of Understanding, which recommended two National Recreation Areas, one in Pisgah Ranger District near Brevard and the other in Grandfather Ranger District that would encompass Lost Cove and Harper Creek. “National Recreation Area” is a congressional designation that allows for a range of management options, including wilderness designation.

The memorandum also proposed an additional 109,000 acres of wilderness throughout Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. Over 40 organizations signed the memorandum and submitted it to the Forest Service as public input in December 2015.

That sparked controversy. Several groups, including the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council, a collection of sportsmen, felt the discussions were conducted behind the scenes and outside of the forest planning collaboration effort known as the Stakeholders Forum.

Wasson has argued that the discussions sent a message to the Forest Service that would put its current protection in jeopardy. Concern about the memorandum may have also caused several organizations to withhold their signatures, including the state chapter of the Sierra Club and the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Fallout may also have contributed to Martin losing his position at The Wilderness Society, according to a November 2017 article in the Smoky Mountain News.

John Wilson, a Chapel Hill documentary filmmaker and conservationist with roots in Avery County, has been an outspoken critic of the memorandum.  Following the release of the first draft of the memorandum, Wilson formed the Friends of Harper Creek and Lost Cove Wilderness.

In an email to Martin in December 2015, Wilson wrote that he and “others strongly disagree with your assertion that (a National Recreation Area) will afford the same degree of protection for Harper Creek and Lost Cove as their current WSA status.”

“There’s no telling what any Congress, especially our current one, will do,” Wilson wrote. “It could remove WSA status and replace it with absolutely nothing, or worse yet, a mandate to manage these areas for timber production.”

Numerous conservation groups were left out of the conversation, according to Wilson. Among those excluded from the discussions were “any local landowners; all of the land trusts operating in the area — Foothills Conservancy, Blue Ridge Conservancy and the Conservation Trust for North Carolina; other environmental and conservation organizations such as Appalachian Voices, the Catawba Riverkeeper, The Conservation Fund and The Nature Conservancy; and important individual supporters of conservation in the area and state,” Wilson said in an email to Carolina Public Press.

In September 2016, The Wilderness Society withdrew its support for the memorandum. In a series of emails to Wilson spanning 12 months, Jamie Williams, the national president of The Wilderness Society wrote that “we are pulling the MOU off our website today.”

“We all recognize that we need to take a step back to broaden the dialogue among key stakeholders to see if we can find common ground around a new solution that can be more broadly embraced,” Williams wrote.

“I have asked our team to make sure the coalition understands that whatever options we pursue collaboratively to bring different interests together around conservation of the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest, they should be done in ways that maintain these WSAs … and be recommended for wilderness in the forest plan.”

Hodge also favors permanent wilderness protection status for Lost Cove and Harper Creek. “I don’t think anyone was left out (of discussions) intentionally,” he said. “There was no end around. Obviously, there are hard feelings that people felt left out. I respect the opinion that (groups and individuals) should have been involved earlier on. I recognize that mistakes were made, but not intentionally.”

Forest Lookouts
Carolina Public Press has reported on the future of Pisgah and Natahala national forests for more than three years. Click for more from that ongoing reporting.

Whether omitting certain voices was intentional is beside the point, according to Wasson. “A loud contingency of users have successfully put withholding a wilderness recommendation for Lost Cove and Harper Creek on the table,” he said. “This has real implications. If the Forest Service removes its recommendation, it could very easily lead to protections being stripped away.”

Martin maintains that the memorandum was a step forward for forest planning. “I still think it was a great result to see that many interest groups — who are at each other’s throats nationally — at the table in the spirit of collaboration,” he said.

“It would have been one of the better outcomes of the forest planning process. I felt like it was a chance for us to do something positive.”

Some of the “drama” tied to the memorandum — in particular, the end of Martin’s career at The Wilderness Society — has been “heartbreaking,” according to Hodge. He hopes the Forest Service planning staff will at least consider the work of the coalition that generated the proposal.

Hodge also responded to concerns that the WSAs had been a bargaining chip in a deal to forgo future wilderness status in exchange for the support of mountain bikers for wilderness status elsewhere in the national forest.

“The MOU does not call for (Lost Cove/Harper Creek) to not be recommended as wilderness,” Hodge said. “The MOU was a piece of conservation work to help inform the Forest Service as they figure out how to manage 1.1 million acres.”

While Stahlschmidt expressed disappointment that the proposal for a National Recreation Area in Grandfather Ranger District “fell apart,” he said relationships among various users have become stronger.

“Regardless of what happens in the forest plan, 10 years from now the landscape, in general, will be better off in terms of the functionality of trails,” he said.

Hodge and Stahlschmidt agreed that, despite concerns, the memorandum demonstrated the potential for collaboration among groups that disagree but share some common values around public land use.

“It reflected that people can disagree and still find common ground and that we’re going to continue to work together to see if it’s possible to provide the opportunities the mountain bike community is looking for while also providing the protections for Wilson Creek that so many people have worked on for decades,” Hodge said.

“I value (John Wilson’s) position that he should have been involved earlier on, but I also respect that Paul has a different design and that we can’t ignore their desire because they are an important voice in this process.”

In spite of a national and local narrative that mountain bikers and wilderness advocates are at odds, the two communities have an excellent relationship at the moment and have worked hard to get there, according to Julie White, the Pisgah Area director for the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association.

“It shows that people with widely different backgrounds can get together and come up with something that works,” White said. “We’re on the right track. I think we have more similarities than we do differences.”

Wasson nevertheless expressed concerned that a compromise that endangers WSA protection may be reckless given the current political environment in Washington, which is hostile to public land protection. He’s also skeptical of the argument that, after three decades, it’s unlikely Harper Creek and Lost Cove will ever achieve congressional wilderness designation.

“The argument ‘Well, maybe they had their time’ doesn’t reflect an understanding of how hard it is to protect these areas,” he said.

“It might take 100 years, but just because it got caught up in politics doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of wilderness protection. I share the goals of substantially increasing the number of bike-accessible trails in the Grandfather district and ensuring that some of those are long trails with access to beautiful scenery. We have pledged repeatedly that we will work side by side with (mountain bikers) to rectify that situation, just not in a way that involves potential loss of WSA status.”

Josh Kelly, a biologist with MountainTrue, whose organization signed the memorandum, said attempts to discuss management strategies in the Wilson Creek watershed have made the coalition of users “stronger and bigger.”

“Part of the MOU was to say wilderness advocates acknowledge the value of backcountry mountain biking experiences and that mountain biking organizations support protection,” Kelly said.

“I don’t see mountain bikes as a threat to the conservation of the area. We need a strong political coalition in order to permanently protect these areas. Ultimately, it will continue to be politically impossible to designate and protect these areas without a broad coalition to support them.”

Will Harlan, co-organizer of the Friends of Big Ivy, also believes it’s vital that mountain bikers and wilderness advocates come together. His group has proposed a 7,000-acre wilderness area in northern Buncombe County that does not include any existing mountain biking trails in the proposal.

While the geography and location of trails in Wilson Creek make working around riding routes more difficult, Harlan believes wilderness areas and mountain biking areas can support each other side by side on the landscape.

“I would rather see us find some common ground than to continue to bicker among ourselves,” he said.

“We need to protect these forests and need to stand together as a common outdoor community. … I originally thought this was just an obscure Forest Service process. It’s far more — it’s about the health of our water and air and the future of our forests and land use. It needs to involve far more people than just the select groups that the Forest Service has brought to the table. The public needs to be far more engaged in this.”

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