JULY 14, 2011 ISSUE

Grandfather National Scenic Area: An Introduction

The Biggest Debate You Havenít Heard About

Looking east from Beacon Heights on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the eye soars across the bulk of the acreage proposed as a National Scenic Area. Photo by Randy Johnson
Editorís Note

This is the first week of a collaborative, multi-part series about efforts to create a Grandfather National Scenic Area in the Pisgah National Forest between Blowing Rock and Grandfather Mountain, which, among other things, would bar timber harvests. Click to www.highcountrypress.comfor photos, videos and more features dedicated to this series.

A century ago, the 1911 Weeks Act permitted the federal government to purchase private land to protect the headwaters of rivers and watersheds in the eastern United States. More than 20 million acres of federal forests were later purchased where massive floods and inferno-like fires had scarred landscapes denuded by logging.

A hundred years later, logging in the High Country is back in the news. In a not-so-instant-replay of the late 1980s, concerns recently greeted U.S. Forest Service (USFS) plans to cut timber in the Globe part of the Pisgah National Forest.

The result may be the biggest debate you haven’t heard of—whether to create a 25,500-acre Grandfather National Scenic Area (GNSA) on land already owned by the USFS between Blowing Rock and Grandfather Mountain.

Twenty years after clearcutting controversies in the late-1980s—another Forest Service timber sale proposal came along in 2006. That latest logging plan sparked the ongoing—but not all that visible—initiative to create the GNSA. The environmental group Wild South—based in Asheville and formed in 2007 by a merger of Wild South and The Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project—is spearheading the effort. Tracy Davids, the group’s executive director, said, “The local community is concerned that if this area is not permanently protected, they will have to fight timber sales like the Globe every few years.”

Last summer, major concessions were offered by the USFS that significantly altered the 2006 proposal. The agency reduced the logging acreage from 212 to 137, dropped road building from 1.5 miles to one-half mile, with no permanent roads to be built. Though no clearcuts were even proposed, preservation groups were ecstatic that the Forest Service eliminated “old growth” trees from the harvest and pledged to reduce the visibility of the cuts from surrounding areas.

Wild South and other involved conservationists, including the Southern Environmental Law Center, then dropped the threat of legal action against the logging plan. That set the stage for renewed emphasis on the scenic area effort.

A variety of early summer events in the High Country culminated in the recent launch of a dedicated GNSA website and the recent release of a new “white paper” by Wild South. That 25-page, July 2011 statement calls the GNSA proposal a “win/win” for the economy and conservation.

The Big Picture

In this view from the Rough Ridge boardwalk on the Tanawha Trail, the line visible in the forest just above the rock and railing is the edge of a clearcut still growing up since timbering in the 1980s. Photo by Randy Johnson
Want To Know More?

Check out Wild South’s GNSA campaign website: www.gnsafornc.org

To get a grasp on the issue—and a “gasp” on the view being discussed—head up the Tanawha Trail on Rough Ridge and look out toward the Piedmont. A large portion of the 25,500 acres lies directly below (to the south and southeast), enveloping the Wilson Creek drainage that flows to your right beside Rough Ridge. Another big chunk of the acreage also lies off to the left (to the east), below Grandfather and under Blowing Rock.

According to Ben Prater, associate director of Wild South, lands placed within the proposed boundary of the GNSA were “determined to be highly visible from the Blue Ridge Parkway, Grandfather Mountain and the Town of Blowing Rock.” The group also targeted lands “that were not being managed to emphasize timber production and land that was not already protected under Wilderness or Wild & Scenic designations.” Other considerations included physical or geographic boundaries such as roads and rivers.

The proposed GNSA occupies the heart of the dramatic, four-thousand-foot plummet from the peaks of Grandfather Mountain State Park to the vast rippling woodlands far below, forming a visible backdrop for dozens of overlooks on the Blue Ridge Parkway, viewpoints all across Grandfather Mountain and many other locations in the Blowing Rock area.

Wild South’s white paper points to a North Carolina Natural Heritage Program report from the state Department of Environment & Natural Resources that calls the backcountry of Grandfather Mountain “one of the most significant sites in the southern Appalachian Mountains, comparable in terms of biodiversity with Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Roan Mountain.”

That ecological nod at Grandfather Mountain is relevant because proponents of designating a scenic area below the mountain see the effort as more than a way to protect the scenery or boost the tourism economy. They also want to ensure the ecological integration of the dozen or more interconnected natural communities that cascade down from the peaks of this precipitous escarpment of the Blue Ridge. Among those are the last old growth forests in our area.

What Comes Next

As proponents of designating a national scenic area consider their next moves, the area’s Congressional representatives seem to be the biggest roadblock to the measure. According to Wild South, neither Virginia Foxx (of NC’s 5th Congressional District) nor Patrick McHenry (of the 10th) seem inclined to support the effort.

“Although a GNSA would create jobs, boost the local economy, protect the environment and cost taxpayers nothing, our current High Country representatives aren’t the least bit interested,” said Tracy Davids. “So, we are working at the grassroots level to support the community and businesses in demanding that their representatives act in their best interest. The GNSA is a win-win, and the politicians need to understand that.

“It’s going take a lot more voices from people in the community to sway the politicians,” Davids added.

To make that happen, Wild South activists are busily canvassing area businesses for support. The group’s new white paper and related website make a strong economic appeal—a message tailored to unstable economic times.

While Wild South’s white paper covers a lot of ground—it pointedly cites a 2008 economic impact study by Colorado State University. The research predicts scenic area designation for this now lightly used part of Pisgah National Forest would bring significant economic benefits—an estimated 1.5 million new visitors a year, $38.4 million a year in added economic activity and the creation of 724 new jobs.

Proponents say the GNSA would ultimately have even greater impact by opening “up funding for many kinds of new trails,” said Hanes Boren, owner of Footsloggers in Boone. “That’s huge to the economy.”

Big Questions

Would a scenic area designation be “huge” for the High Country economy? Would it offset the value of continued timber harvesting if logging is prohibited in the area? In fact, scenic area designation does not necessarily prohibit timbering. “Activities in a National Scenic Area are defined in the legislation that creates the area,” said Stevin M. Westcott, current public affairs officer for the National Forests in North Carolina.

Even while discussing the “three High Country counties” of the proposed GNSA, Wild South’s white paper clearly puts the emphasis on Avery and Watauga. That begs the question—how “big” would a scenic area designation be for Caldwell County? A lot of the proposed acreage is located in Caldwell—and 10th Congressional District Representative Patrick McHenry’s support would be needed to even introduce the bill. Is it out of the question that Caldwell’s less developed tourism sector could see a surprising boost with a scenic area connection to the High Country?

In the next few years, the USFS is required to revisit its own Forest Plan for the area—the last one created amid the clearcutting controversy of the 1980s. After past and even recent missteps with parts of the High Country community, might the agency actually decide to support scenic area designation?

Over the next month, High Country Press will try to offer answers to the above and other questions, as well as provide analysis to help interested readers sort out the pros and cons.

Randy Johnson has covered management of Pisgah National Forest since authoring (along with Jim Thompson) an award-winning 1980s series on the clear-cutting controversy for The Mountain Times. He’s conducted forest management research under grants from the U.S. Forest Service and launched the Grandfather Mountain wilderness trail management program in 1978.