Land sakes

North Carolinians recently joined the nationwide celebration of Great Outdoors Week, honoring our state’s public lands and their vital contributions to public health, recreation and the environment. But what’s sometimes overlooked is the importance of these treasures to North Carolina's economy. Getting people outdoors is a growing business here, accounting for more than $7.5 billion a year and 95,000 jobs across the state, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.

That money isn't always easy to track, but the ripple effect clearly benefits many rural communities. When someone comes to the mountains, they fill up their gas tank, stay at a hotel, motel or bed-and-breakfast and go out to eat. Maybe they buy supplies or equipment from local merchants, too — and all those dollars support the local economy.

“Our guests come from all over the country and the world, attracted by the area’s remarkable natural beauty,” notes Pinecrest Bed and Breakfast owner Janna Martin. “A good part of our business is folks from all walks of life who come to explore the forests, to hike the trails, to paddle the rivers and to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway. We are truly blessed by the mountains that surround the city of Asheville."

Among North Carolina’s many publicly owned treasures are the Mackey Mountain and Cheoah Bald roadless areas and the Overflow, Craggy and Snowbird wilderness study areas. They all provide clean water and essential wildlife habitat while bolstering the state’s economy.

But a bill now before Congress would remove current protections from more than 60 million acres of public lands across the country. The Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act (H.R.1581) proposes to open up roughly 70 percent of America's most valuable landscapes and waterways to degradation by large-scale development and off-road-vehicle use.

This is only one of multiple current attempts by lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and Raleigh to undo fundamental protections for clean air, clean water, endangered species and public lands. These efforts pose a significant threat to values shared by many North Carolinians, such as protecting air and water quality, wildlife and our spectacular outdoor-recreation opportunities.

At the state level, Rep. Susan Fisher has called 2011 “easily one of the worst sessions we have had for the environment in modern history.” She adds: “We must be sure that we maintain vital oversight on issues and processes that impact our quality of life. Businesses often locate here due to our exceptional quality of life and clean environment.”

As Tracy Davids, executive director of the Asheville-based Wild South, points out, "With logging, mining and drilling already allowed on more than one-half of our public lands, we call on our leaders to give meaningful protection to the rest so that they can be enjoyed by future generations.”

During Great Outdoors Week, hundreds of people joined outings throughout the Southeast — hiking, horseback riding, fishing and biking in celebration of these magnificent areas. Meanwhile, Gov. Bev Perdue has proclaimed Sept. 24 Public Lands Day to raise public awareness of these treasures.

Closer to home, Asheville Vice Mayor Brownie Newman notes: “The Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park conserve and restore the great natural heritage of our Southern Appalachian region. It's hard to overstate their value to our economy, our ecological health and our way of life in Western North Carolina."

So get out and enjoy some of the incomparable public lands we sometimes tend to take for granted — and then speak out to help keep these regional treasures protected (see box, “Speak Up”). Urge your senators and representatives to oppose any attempt to undo critical protections for our public lands, including roadless areas. We must ensure that we bequeath this priceless legacy to future generations in as good or better shape than it was left to us.

— Asheville resident Mark Shelley is director of the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition.

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