The Green Scene: Speak up for our natural heritage

[Editor’s note: This week’s Green Scene is a sort of green commentary alerting readers to the upcoming America’s Great Outdoors listening session.]

Nestled in Western North Carolina lie several natural treasures that are dear to all state residents, such as the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These forests contribute to the health of the Southern Appalachian ecosystem, which supports and sustains us with clean drinking water, healthy air and countless recreational opportunities, including boating, hunting and fishing, camping and bird watching. Every year, millions of visitors come to enjoy all that the Pisgah/Nantahala and Great Smokies have to offer.

Besides serving as a home away from home for all those folks, these areas are the actual home of hundreds of different kinds of plants, including one of the world’s most diverse assemblages of tree species. They also shelter one of the largest populations of vertebrate species in North America, as well as dozens of different kinds of nesting birds.

Yet out of the Pisgah/Nantahala’s roughly 1 million acres, only about 66,000 (less than 7 percent) are permanently protected as wilderness. Meanwhile, the visitation numbers make it clear that there’s a growing demand for more protected scenic areas, wilderness and parklands. Nonetheless, we’re seeing a lot of those opportunities disappear as our national forests are increasingly threatened by private development, climate change, invasive pests such as the hemlock woolly adelgid, proposed highways and mismanaged off-road vehicles.

At the same time, however, many local groups — hunters and anglers, recreationists, Native American tribes, small-business leaders, tourism and timber interests, and conservationists — have come together to support protecting the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests against those threats.

We could see a key moment in those continuing efforts when the America’s Great Outdoors listening-session tour stops in Asheville on Thursday, July 15, (see box). Authorized by President Obama in April, this national conservation initiative has enlisted representatives of a number of key federal agencies to tour the country soliciting Americans’ best ideas for developing a new national conservation strategy.

North Carolina has some excellent models that the administration can learn from. Showcasing unity, cooperation and collaboration, the state’s land trusts have protected thousands of acres of working farmlands and forests that help preserve rural culture and wildlife habitat while buffering our public lands from the effects of development and climate change. Other local conservation successes include public/private land partnerships and reconnecting our young people with the outdoors.

Protecting and restoring public lands as well as private, working farms and forests can create much-needed jobs in Western North Carolina. Besides helping accommodate growing numbers of visitors, these workers can contribute to preserving our quality of life and forging a sustainable future for our region. Increased funding to combat the ravages of the woolly adelgid, for example, could help save the remaining hemlocks while bolstering rural mountain economies and providing jobs in some of the hardest-hit areas in the state.

Our working forests offer a natural, accessible way for people — especially our youth — to experience the great outdoors. We can raise a generation of conservationists who’ll grow up to be good stewards of our beloved Appalachian ecosystem, thereby ensuring that future generations can also benefit from our rich natural heritage.

The July 15 listening session is your chance to tell these key federal officials what you want for our region — today and tomorrow.

[Brent Martin is The Wilderness Society's Southern Appalachian director, with an office in Franklin. He can be reached at]

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