JULY 21, 2011 ISSUE

National Scenic Areas Near and FaróA Path for the High Country?

This map depicts the trails and peaks within the Mount Pleasant Scenic Area in Virginia.
Editorís Note

This is the second 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.

Not far from the Mount Pleasant National Scenic Area, the sculpted ridge of The Priest was designated as Virginiaís 5,963-acre Priest Wilderness in 2000. Photo by Randy Johnson

On this 100th anniversary of the 1911 law that created the eastern national forests, North Carolina can be proud to claim the very first of those federal forests, Pisgah.

National Scenic Areas—a designation being proposed right now for 25,500 acres of Pisgah National Forest below Grandfather Mountain—came much later, with the 1986 designation of the Columbia River Gorge NSA in Oregon and Washington.

There are fewer than a dozen National Scenic Areas in the United States, and three of them are in Virginia. As High Country residents entertain a proposal to bestow Scenic Area status on forests below the Blue Ridge Parkway, let’s look at recent NSAs designated in Virginia, and the very first, in the Pacific Northwest.

Mount Pleasant Scenic Area, Virginia

Virginia got into the Scenic Area act in 1994 with the Mount Pleasant Scenic Area, a spot just east of the Blue Ridge Parkway north of Lynchburg. In an article for the Roanoke Times, staff writer Kevin Myatt said with “‘Pleasant’ and ‘Scenic’ as two of its middle names, [the area] had a lot to live up to. It has. Over and over again.”

The 7,580-acre tract contains a stretch of the Appalachian Trail and 3,000- to 4,000-foot summits (Mount Pleasant, 4,071 feet, and Pompey Mountain, 4,032 feet). Crags and meadows offer views of the Virginia Piedmont, Shenandoah Valley, Blue Ridge, and the Allegheny Mountains bordering West Virginia. There’s a 12-mile figure-eight trail system.

In the legislation designating a Scenic Area, Congress specifies how the area is to be managed. Mount Pleasant’s management plan reads like a Wilderness Area—no timber cutting is permitted (except under limited circumstances), and no mining is allowed. But Mount Pleasant couldn’t be a Wilderness area. Motorized and mechanized access is banned in federal Wilderness Areas, and a public road runs into the heart of Mount Pleasant providing trail access for hikers and hunters.

In early 1993, there was considerable public sentiment to make Mount Pleasant a Wilderness Area. The local Amherst County Board of Supervisors had unanimously endorsed the idea three times—in part to protect a valuable watershed likely to become more important as a source of water. Already a “Special Management Area,” the supervisors nevertheless were not convinced it would stay that way. The Forest Service planning process permits management changes every decade or so, and county officials specifically wanted to prohibit clearcutting that might undermine water quality.

Newly elected local Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte opposed the legislation, agreeing with some local business interests. Among those opponents was Charles Chandler, president of Virginia Fibre, a paper company and the county’s largest employer. He feared stricter air quality standards would be invoked to protect the Wilderness, thus affecting his plant. Wilderness proponents maintained that air quality standards would not become an issue—but opponents were not convinced those assurances would last over time.

In June 1993, Goodlatte found a compromise and proposed a Mount Pleasant National Scenic Area. According to newspaper coverage at the time, he spent “five months selling the plan to legislators, county officials and high school students.” The law that designates a Scenic Area greatly affects its management, so county officials asked Goodlatte to amend his act to prohibit mining and largely restrict tree cutting to existing wildlife openings.

Motorized access to the heart of the area was maintained. In a moving anecdote, Goodlatte told Amherst County High School students that he’d taken a tour of the proposed Scenic Area and encountered an amputee angler who, he felt certain, would not have been able to fish in the area if existing roads had been closed by Wilderness designation.

Goodlatte’s compromise won the support of the Board of Supervisors, and later, of Congress. Today the representative who ushered in the first of Virginia’s now three National Scenic Areas touts the accomplishment. Recreation—not timber harvesting—had won the day.

Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, Virginia

Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, with Mount Rogers in the background.

“I can’t speak for national forests other than our own, but here, the strategy of designating National Scenic Areas was borne out of compromise,” said George Washington National Forest Planning and Forest Ecology Staff Officer Ken Landgraf.

It’s difficult for the Forest Service to jump on board with National Scenic Area designation, Landgraf says, because “it’s hard to recommend something you don’t control. Since Congress dictates the management, we haven’t proposed them.”

Nevertheless, they keep getting proposed. Two new Scenic Areas totaling 12,000 acres were designated in 2009 under the Virginia Ridge and Valley Act (bringing Virginia’s total Scenic Area acreage to nearly 20,000 acres). All of the new areas were endorsed by either the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and/or the Board of Supervisors of the county where the area is located. The law also created seven new Wilderness areas totaling 43,000 acres.

Landgraf says he personally finds it difficult to decide “which areas rise to the status of ‘nationally scenic’ or which places are necessarily more scenic than others.” That ambiguity lies at the heart of why some people argue for more formal preservation of certain places as Wilderness or Scenic Areas. “It does get pointed out,” Landgraf says, “that even if we agreed to manage an area as if it were a National Scenic Area, that management approach might only be in place for the life of the Forest Plan. Making a policy permanent is a big consideration for many people—and a drawback for others.”

One of Virginia’s two newest Scenic Areas is in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area not far from the High Country. The Forest Service’s National Recreation Area designation already intends to attract visitors and help build tourism—and some see National Scenic Areas as another way to do that. Landgraf says, “One of the reasons for the NSA in Mount Rogers was to get something special on the map to draw people in.”

Ironically, one of the reasons that conservationists in Virginia are increasingly considering National Scenic Area status is the growing appeal of another kind of recreation—mountain biking. In May, the USFS released its first new Virginia Forest Plan since 1993—the same planning process that National Forests in North Carolina are preparing to undertake.

The Virginia Plan’s 90-day public review period lasts until September 1, 2011. The public is offering alternatives to the plan. One proposes more than another 100,000 acres of new Scenic Areas.

Why the new appeal for Scenic Areas? Wilderness designation prohibits mechanized means of travel—but you can ride a mountain bike in Scenic Areas. "Twenty years after Congressman Goodlatte’s compromise against Wilderness and for National Scenic Area status—there’s a new two-wheeled recreational reason why Scenic Areas are drawing supporters. In at least one spot in Virginia, there’s an unheard-of effort to move a Wilderness boundary to the east so a great mountain biking trail can be opened to the public.

Landgraf says the USFS will consider whether to embrace those suggestions before the final plan comes out in January. The big plus for the agency—if it’s forced to embrace more Scenic Areas? “The Mount Pleasant Act is similar to the one that designated the new Seng Mountain and Bear Creek Scenic Areas,” Landgraf says.

Virginia’s experience highlights one major appeal of National Scenic Area status: its permanence. No one seems to trust the federal government very much—and that includes Forest Service personnel who rotate in and out of regions around the country and can, it’s feared, lose sight of promises made to protect lands of enduring importance to locals. It was just such a situation that brought Forest Service logging plans back to the Globe when so many locals assumed it wouldn’t happen again.

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Washington and Oregon

Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is the second highest year-round waterfall in the United States.

This summer, the Columbia River Gorge Commission is celebrating 25 years of landmark legislation creating the first National Scenic Area. It was no small feat.

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area protects 292,500 acres in Washington and Oregon from the suburbs of the cities of Portland and Vancouver near the Pacific through the Cascade Mountains to semi-arid regions in the East. It’s the only National Scenic Area with people living in it. Along its 80 miles, the dramatic soaring shoreline of the second largest river in North America is protected in a “grand experiment,” says Gorge Commission Executive Director Jill Arens.

“There aren’t many prettier places than this,” Arens said. “As I look out my window at Mount Hood, towering over forests and agricultural fields, I’m thankful that people here have the energy to want to keep it.”

This NSA isn’t just a management choice for a parcel of Forest Service land. Fifty percent of the land in the Scenic Area is privately owned and managed under stringent land use controls that “turned this area upside in the mid-1980s,” Arens said. “But as time goes by, the benefits are more apparent. The majority of people here are either neutral, accepting, or very accepting.”

Native Americans have inhabited the Columbia River Gorge for 10,000 years, Arens noted. The abundance of salmon, berries, roots and other natural resources drew trading tribes from all over the western side of the continent. “The Indian name for a point near here is ‘where the wind blows in two directions,’” said Arens. “That made it ideal to dry fish and trade with other tribes.”

Today the four area tribes play a big role in the NSA, exercising tribal rights to the resources and “traditional cultural properties.” The Gorge management plan exempts urban areas from land use regulations but confines most commercial activities to those zones where economic development activities, and even grants to businesses, work to grow the economy. In the broader NSA, the emphasis is on sustainable tourism and agriculture.

As far back as the early 1900s, when many national parks were getting underway amid their own controversies, sentiment was strong that the beauty of the Gorge was fragile.

By the 1980s, growing concern over development, mining and harmful emissions from an aluminum plant led community leaders to approach their representatives. The politicians created a National Scenic Area solution signed by President Reagan in 1986.

With so much land already being managed locally in the Mount Hood and Gifford Pinchot National Forests, the USFS became the steward. The National Scenic Area Act “does not create a wilderness or park,” the Forest Service says. “Instead, it allows for existing rural and scenic characteristics to be retained, while it encourages compatible growth and development within urban areas.”

The Columbia River Gorge Commission is an inter-state compact and “today we interact with 40 entities, from private to governmental,” Arens said. “Without the commission, we’d have a patchwork of interpretation and implementation.”

An important turning point for the area’s focus on sustainability came in the early 1990s, when the importance of logging, “already seasonal,” said Arens, declined further when the endangered spotted owl curtailed logging in nearby national forests.

Tourism had played a pretty small part, but by the 1980s, residents were looking around and saying, “Hey, what are all these wind surfers doing here? Until then, we’d always just complained about the ‘damned wind’ and reached for a comb,” said Arens. “They convinced us we have a world-class recreation area.”

World-class recreation is at the heart of today’s vision for the Columbia River Gorge NSA. In 25 years, the Gorge Commission touts such successes as: “over 40,000 acres of land acquired for the public, the restoration of the Historic Columbia River Highway, a Management Plan that has helped limit the impacts of new development,” and the hope that “more can be done in the next 25 years to protect natural resources, create ‘sustainable recreation’ and economically support the diverse Gorge communities.”

If you ever wondered just how ecologically devastating the deforestation of the Appalachians was 100 years ago, this picture is worth a thousand words (and trees).

Conclusion: Scenic Areas Mean Recreation

More than ever, sustainable recreation and tourism seem closely associated with the national forests and especially the National Scenic Area concept.

That would shock the politicians who 100 years ago voted for the Weeks Act to found these forests. During early debates about buying private land to create federal forest land—the prevailing pro-business cry against the idea was “not one red cent for scenery!”